Monday, July 18, 2011

Public self-expression

I envision a Kingdom that enables and encourages each and every individual to come into their own self-expression. I am not referring to the basic needs: shelter, education, employment. No, this is a much more qualitative aspiration... it is the ability to construct one's identity and express it while living in harmony with her and his own society. I think this is one of the reasons why I'm so attracted to street art (emphasis on "art" and not scribbles on walls with complete disregard for private and public monuments). Most of all, this focus on individual, own, self, etc. is really about personal space and the ability to act on it within public space.

One of my biggest simple wishes (and I'm not alone in this) is that I could just step out of my home on occasion and walk around aimlessly, without clear purpose... say I want to get a cup of coffee, stroll down an avenue, take a walk in the park, peruse a bookstore. In short, using my leisure time outside clear-cut spaces. It's really about two things: the first is, not needing to get into a car to drive to a specific destination: school, work, a friend's house, a mall. Abesent of public transportation constraints (that's an entirely different subject), there's a question of enabling these spaces for self expression to exist. The second matter is the culture of being alone.

Nowadays, walking along the Corniche and having a family picnic are no longer rare occurrences. As a society we are placing more importance on providing public spaces for families to enjoy. This is nothing short of absolutely positive. At the level of the individual, however, it is not as pronounced.. but it is slowly emerging.

The coffee shop culture which has always been integral to our traditions and lifestyle as a society, is now seeing a different type of visitor: the sole individual seeking a moment's solace. Call her, the Parisian.

One summer in Europe, a group of us we were walking around discovering the nooks and crannies of a particular neighborhood when we came across a small coffee shop with outdoor seating. We were suddenly overcome with a desire for fresh lemonade and a little rest time. There was but one elderly gentleman sitting outside reading a book and other than him, the tables and chairs were all free. Within 2 minutes, we had rearranged the entire seating area to accomodate our big group and were laughing and joking merrily and being, frankly, quite loud. From time to time, the gentleman would look over incredulously and in the end, giving up, he put down his book and laughed in despair. We had invaded his quiet time. Realizing the situation, we turned to him and included him in our chatter, laughing off the situation.

Now, I am in now way claiming that we have adopted (or need to adopt) this solitary coffee shop culture. Some people don't like to be alone, period. Others really enjoy reading in bed or on the beach. Some can only focus in an office or an otherwise quiet location assigned for that purpose. And for another lot, spare time means it's finally..time..to..do.. nothing. For many, an outing is only an outing when you can share it with others.

I'm not trying to persuade anyone to change their habits and I admit I have never seen anyone reading a novel in public here. But for those who relish quiet time, alone, in public, these spaces have begun to slowly crop up. And this makes me.. happy. I have always been one who finds inspiration in the mundane around me. Watching a family interact or exchanging smiles with a child who wanders to my table. Sipping tea while writing down thoughts or reading.

Taking my laptop to a coffee shop. This is my own tiny form of public self-expression. What's yours?

IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.