Motorcycle Diaries

(This article was originally published in Jordan’s Living Well magazine)

Forgive me, Ernesto, for helping myself to this undeserved title of which I am grossly unworthy. I ask permission not only because I’m so unlike you in that I cannot believe in a single earthly dogma for the salvation of mankind so as to dedicate my whole existence to fight and die for it.

This noble, but often blinding, human trait is only part of the abyss that demarcates your fearless soul from mine. What really sets us apart here is that my inconsequential motorcycle expeditions will not leave these pages, whereas your celebrated treks are already grand history. And so are you. From t-shirts to boxer shorts, your portrait is a cult image more recognizable than most Hollywood celebrities. Alas, the only portrait you’re likely to find of this author is a Swiss police mug-shot for some serious traffic violations, but we won’t get into that. So Comandante, you still rock!

After getting this healthy bout of exaggerated self-deprecation out of the way, I have to say that I wouldn’t be seen dead on that Norton 500 piece of junkyard crap you were riding. What were you thinking, comrade? And what am I doing talking to a dead man anyway?

But they say that everything happens for a good reason. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I know that where it happens has a good reason too, and that Che Guevara was meant to have his revolutionary baptism observing the social inequities in South America, and not anywhere else. This theory of ‘geographical destiny’ was first relayed to me a few years ago by my brother-in-law, Sami, when in a unique moment of revelation he understood why, out of all places, God chose to send Muhammad to the smoldering deserts of Arabia.

We were driving in my car up to a restaurant near Megève in the French Alps one beautiful summer day when the angel of lucidity came unto Sami. Surrounded by an orgy of colors amidst breathtaking scenery and waterfalls coming out of rocks, he saw God’s wisdom in the choice of venue 14 centuries ago. He theorized that Muhammad, peace be upon him, would have preached on deaf ears had he promised the locals of this magnificent landscape that awaiting them were luscious gardens underneath which rivers flow. That’s why it had to be the unforgiving terrains of Hijaz where the vision of Heaven and Hell would resonate the loudest (his ‘theory of relativity of Paradise’ continued on the questionable allure of beautiful ‘Huris’ for the faithful French males, but you got the idea).

Likewise, I would say, had Che Guevara wandered in the Utopian Swiss countryside instead, he would have probably lived on to become a good doctor, had a wife and a few kids, maybe a Labrador named Fidel, two weeks of holiday per year, a station wagon, and a mortgage – with no destructive grudges against capitalism or any other ism, and not even a small footnote in history. Whose face would have then adorned the walls of students’ rooms the world over? Mine? I doubt it. Thus, everything happens for a good reason.

I think the reason communist regimes in Europe collapsed like a house of cards has something to do with Sami’s theory on God’s sticks and carrots. Communism failed not because capitalism is necessarily a good thing, but because communism is so much worse. The tyrannical apparatus of Soviet rule deprived people of the natural human yearning for earthly pleasures without giving them any metaphysical incentives in return; there were no afterlife rewards as compensation because communists did not believe in God. And since life under the Soviets sucked anyway, the people who were starved of both material and spiritual satisfaction realized what raw hand they were dealt and embraced capitalism in droves.

What will come next is anyone’s guess, as humanity is yet to witness the next level in the evolution of liberal democracies. Take that, Fukuyama, for a world view from a bike. The end of history? Far from it; it’s only just begun.

I would say that if capitalism does have any virtues, then one spectacular aspect has to be the marvelous invention of William Harley and Arthur Davidson (if Che had tried one of today’s models, perhaps he would have softened up a little on his legacy of uncompromising rage, which apparently he owes to being able to ride the capitalist product in the first place). It is indeed a matchless experience, an almost spiritual journey, to roam the wilderness in these machines. Perhaps it’s the only chance one can find these days – unless you own an airplane – to escape from the rat race and meditate about the meaning of life without having to sit still in a yoga position (maybe because one is closest to instantly becoming minced meat on a motorcycle that this contemplative feeling of walking on the edge of life is omnipresent during these rides).

Perhaps that is also why religion tops my list of subjects during such reflective moments. For example, I always found the fundamental Christian notion of the Trinity to be profoundly mystical, yet not readily self-explanatory. Christians themselves do actually concede that it is not the easiest concept to explain or comprehend. Yet, never has understanding this philosophical matrix presented itself more urgently in my mind than during watching the Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s superbly executed masterpiece.

Since the first sign of agony appeared on the face of Jesus, I could not stop asking myself countless questions about the role-changing mechanism within the Trinity between the Father and the Son. Not allowing these questions to ruin the pleasure of this great movie, I just kept wondering when is James Caviezel’s character a helpless, overpowered human Jesus, screeching in agony – and when can he become an almighty God, capable of infinitely miraculous deeds? For example, when can Jesus decide to use his Godly powers to cure and heal wounds (as he miraculously did to one of the disciples during Jesus’ violent capture by the Romans), and when is he incapable of healing other wounds, or even comforting his own devastated mother and stopping the flood of tears pouring down her face?

In other words, who sets the mode, as it were, for this Clark Kent/Superman transformation? I craved to find out during the movie because, like all viewers compulsively immersed in the tragedy, I just wanted Jesus to use any powers he had to stop or ease the unspeakable suffering inflicted upon him by these sadist torturers. Most pressing of all, I wondered whom was Jesus addressing when he cried out from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”? If Jesus is the Lord, who had forsaken whom?

I ask these questions not to belittle or undermine the faith of billions of people; far from it. I do so, first of all, in a sincere attempt to understand. But second and more important, I ask because I can, for I learned from experience that Christians are more tolerant when it comes to debating the pillars of their faith. They go out of their way to make you understand. So, knowing that I will not have my head chopped off, I figured, surely the God of mercy who forgave the crucifiers of Christ will find it in Him to tolerate the harmless ponderings of a curious biker.

Out on the road, such fleeting reflections are in any case frequently interrupted by the salutes of fellow bikers. For the uninitiated, this is one of the most intriguing traditions amongst the community of motorcycle owners. Whenever and wherever they cross each other’s paths, bikers invariably make a subtle saluting gesture with their left hand as a greeting signal. At first, I felt awkward, somewhat childish, waving to complete strangers on the road. But in no time it became second nature, even protocol, to join in with this most fascinating phenomenon. I personally find it to be as such because here you have people who’d never met before, but who have nevertheless developed a remarkable code of friendly etiquette that makes them identify with each other in a refreshing spirit of pride and comradeship. We are not talking here about Hell’s Angels or other organized groups, but simply anyone riding a motorcycle, be it a racing Ducati or a cruising Harley. The fact that even I, to whom closed fraternities were never appealing, now enthusiastically do it proves how humans have a predisposition to want to belong to something, to be part of a tribe, a political party or a sports team, and how easy it is to get them to conform to certain rituals distinguishing their group from the rest. When you think about it, it does sound silly, but at least it is completely harmless and does not involve any secret handshakes or further Masonic connotations. Better a group of road users who unassumingly greet each other than suspicious ones who curse and use other finger gestures, don’t you think?

I have to say that I owe my navigational familiarity around the most scenic rides in the Geneva wine country to my friend and fellow biker, Walid, who was able to convince me, with some hardship, of the motto, “it’s not the destination, it’s the ride”. Now I’m taking this maxim to new levels, as wandering aimlessly and getting completely lost never felt so gratifying. I seriously never thought I would ever derive so much pleasure from actually reaching a junction in a road and taking the exit I never took before, the one which I have absolutely no idea where it would lead. The thrill is in finding out for yourself. And speaking of wine country, it is charming to observe on these escapades just how much land Europeans dedicate to the industry of intoxication. Passing each vineyard selling happiness to the world, you imagine each bottle, each toast, each cork, each anniversary, each dinner, each celebration, and of course, each hangover that came out of these grapes, you can almost smell the tipsiness oozing from these generous lands.

Actually, one of the main delights of these directionless, open-ended rides is indeed the incredible varieties of striking aromas that you come across while breathing air that had not passed through human nostrils before. In the same sense that listening to certain old songs or tunes often takes you on a trip down memory lane, I discovered that certain scents have a more powerful effect of evoking specific moments in your past and bringing them back as if they were reenacted right before your very nose. Some of the memories you will vividly recognize, others will smell so familiar, yet remain enigmatic, like an odorous déjà vu if you like. They remind you of something but you can’t tell what it is. The human mind is after all a very complex database of stored memories, and the sense of smell is one of the most effective recollectors of these buried archives. My friend, Muthanna, aptly demonstrated this fact one day when he spotted an orange tree in a garden shop outside Geneva, blossoming on the first days of spring. As he drew his face close to its flowers, he closed his eyes and sniffed, “now I am in our orange grove in Tulkarem. I’m in Palestine”.

We had to get there, sooner or later I suppose, as all Arab roads lead not to Rome but to Palestine, the land that nothing will be left of soon except for, literally, whiffs of smoke and gunfire, or fragrant memories of orange blossom. The only thing that was missing during Yasser Arafat’s death in November 2004 was the voice of Edward Said, to put everything in perspective and make sense of the nonsensical as he so accustomed us to doing. Arafat spent his career grooming corruption and stifling integrity, surrounding himself with unscrupulous characters, while in the process, gradually deforming and debasing one of the most righteous causes in history. When he was finally killed by a mysterious blood platelets disorder that, according to his personal doctors, can only be caused by sophisticated poisoning, none of his supposedly loyal entourage cared to even seriously investigate the cause of his death. But the ultimate scandal took place before he died and was too much to bear. His closest henchmen were supplying cement to build the final tombstone of the Palestinian struggle, the catastrophic separation wall that isolates farmers from their lands, families from their backyards, and children from their schools. I always tell people that this cement story is so inconceivably disgraceful it is like imagining David Ben Gurion supplying bricks to build Auschwitz. Arafat hand-picked these merchants of depravity, empowered them, set them loose and covered up for their immeasurable corruption. When he was finally betrayed and killed, they lacked the honor to even ask who killed him. But they were his own stubborn choice. Did I already say that everything happens for a reason? May he and all of us rest in peace.

What a journey it had been. Take care, and if you ride, do it safely.

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