What’s the Meaning Of Freedom?

  • Hakeem Sharjeel Riaz
  • Publish Date: Mar 26 2018 2:13AM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 26 2018 2:13AM
What’s the Meaning Of Freedom?

Men live and die for it. They dream about it till the dream devours them 


In The Specter of the Absurd, his exegesis of existential nihilism as expounded by Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus among others, Donald Crosby, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Colorado State University, surmises, “Strut, fret and delude ourselves as we may, our lives are of no significance, and it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found.” The perspective of a fatalist as to the meaning of life being a mere delusion and the perpetual search for “truth and reality” through “religion and metaphysics” to simply allay the fear of unknown, or more precisely death, doles out a grim picture of the reason of our being. But Crosby subsequently uplifts the tone of his exposition: “There is no justification for life, but also no reason not to live.” 

In the light of this, our longings, desires and our actions to fulfill them might seem futile in the grand scheme of things, the reason our civilization teeters on an equilibrium between utopia and dystopia, is this desire and will to live, yearn and find meaning. Averse as I may be to the notion of “the meaning of life” as far as the outcome of our thoughts, actions and life itself is concerned, I have to reluctantly admit that this is what drives the human thought and gives us an expression or a pattern in an otherwise haphazard entropic universe.

One Edinburgh day – dreary, charmless – as the street lights flickered back to life having been subdued by a morose sun for the greater part of their lives, I darted out of my office into the cobbled streets that might have seen happier days and headed towards Pomegranate – a shisha joint in one of the nooks of Edinburgh central that also doubles up as “fine dining” place, although I disagree with their pitch of fine dining. The time was thirty past seven or thereabouts, more than two hours after the sunset and the cold of the typical Scottish afternoon had come to a simmer, which mischievously gives the notion of warmth interspersed with an occasional bout of frost. Most of the people on the way had already clung to the ends of cigarettes for all the unfathomable reasons people cling to self-annihilation. Somewhere about the center of the city, there was a throng of people, drunk three sheets to the wind, causing the traffic to queue back up almost to the place from where I had started, which in turn slowed me down and made me aware of their and my own existence; and that of all the cars, busses, trams, the new and rundown office buildings, the coffee shops, the tea rooms, the bars, “homeless Scottish soldiers”, the pharmacies, chittering students, public parks, churches, gravestones and the like. This generally and subconsciously makes me uncomfortable for I enjoy my walks, quite ironically oblivious of the world around me, but after five minutes of inching my way through this crowd, I had caught back up to my “normal” pace and the sense of awareness of my surroundings had again turned into a cozy haze.

As the cold nibbled on my bones, I descended down Leith Street – a slip road off Princess Street, the hub of Edinburgh – to Leith Walk, a smaller street that opens up towards the coast of Edinburgh. I could already imagine myself snug, tucked in a blanket in the small basement room of the aforementioned diner owned by a man called Pasha. As I drew closer, I could see people with scribbled out faces making way to the basement, readying themselves to color up their black, white and grey lives by way of small inconsequential dinner conversations while puffing smoke from a Shisha, a hubble-bubble with smoke that is an assortment of tobacco, flavoring agents and, occasionally, alcohol.


Pomegranate’s basement is accessed through a flight of dank, steel stairs that lead down into an open passageway littered with small rooms on one side and a kitchen or preparatory room on the other, with a much bigger room adjacent to the kitchen opposite the smaller rooms. I hate to lose foothold and Pomegranate’s stairs are strikingly symbolical of the incertitude that life can be. I ambled down this flight of stairs and lodged myself in the room at the end of the passageway on the left. This room is called Layla for reasons I have never bothered to find out. As I cozied myself under a blanket, I was immediately greeted by a waiter who seemed too eager to take my order. The insipidity of the day had already worn me out and I disinterestedly pointed to something on the menu. He didn’t read into my nonchalance and asked if I would follow the dinner with a Shisha, to which I gave an approving nod, again heedlessly. He sauntered out and I quickly stole a glance into the kitchen, which is amply visible from Layla. 

Almost always, Pasha can be seen squatting inside this kitchen as he prepares a shisha for his varied customers, but on this occasion he was nowhere to be seen. Like a tumbleweed, my thoughts drifted to the last time I had had a conversation with him. That was about a month ago, five days before the Iraqi Kurdistan Independence Referendum. I have meagre knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs in general and the Kurdish Independence struggle in particular. Nevertheless, what mattered during my conversation with Pasha that day was a look of bliss on his face and a glint in his eyes, a luxury very few men in their late 30s or early 40s can be seen to afford these days. And when I make a mention of the rapture in his countenance, I genuinely mean the one that is not as much expressed through expressions or contortions of the face but the one that can palpably be felt by anyone who could have been listening to him in that moment. The referendum, as narrated by Pasha, would have eventually let the Kurds be what they had always desired to be – independent. It mattered to Pasha, it mattered to me; not his independence but his happiness – for a fleeting moment at least.

A thump of glass on the table jolted me out of my reverie and unbeknownst to me, the keen young waiter had returned. He gleamed at me with my victuals resting on the fold of his elbow. It was a fairly large table I was sat at and he could have put my dinner anywhere on it, but he preferred to be told – almost zealously did, be it me or any other customer. So I did point him and it was nothing short of wonder to see him animate with joy at something so trivial, while many a men that I have been in acquaintance with have hardly registered an emotion at the prospect of cataclysmic change in their situations, possibly life altering ones. The omniscient entity that presides over the affairs of men surely has a very wicked sense of humor. My consternation notwithstanding, the boy was happy, however superficial his reason to be. In the face of repudiation of all order of things, and a disregard for the cause and course of all actions, it seems only fair to let things be; for men and women grow, or not, within the realm of their own minds, hardly ever moved by others. Their propensity for whatever it is that they do and feel is controlled by it, governed by it. In the days of their bloom, nothing else matters, just as in the time of their ruin, no other matters.


As my mind had slipped back to rally from one thought to the next, it was the ravenous bite of Edinburgh cold that once again jostled me to my senses. I noticed I had finished my dinner, presumably in the same manner that I had chosen to be incognisant of the world around me from time to time. The passageway looked a bit deserted now. I wanted someone to clear my table, so I walked out of Layla and just as I was about to knock the kitchen door to summon a cleaner, I noticed Pasha walking down the steel stairs, broodingly. As he approached me, I noticed the pallid look on his face and a weariness in his gait. For all my talk of Pasha’s unfathomable joy earlier, Pasha in his routine appearance was a man of roughly 40 with broad shoulders, an upright posture and a stern, stony look about his face that seemed to accentuate the elegance of his visage. One could hardly see a smile on his face but the manner of his appearance underlined the pride, dignity and contentment of a man who had toiled hard all his life and now lived in tranquility with all the fruits his hard labour had borne. Not the one to indulge in jibber jabber, his conversations lacked joviality but the brevity of his words more than made up for it.

This day, however, was different. With a subdued walk, he had approached me, his shoulders drooped, his arms dangling from the pivots of his shoulders as if by a thread and his legs unable to bear the weight of his being. He looked repugnant. Facing me, an arm’s length away, without any indication from me, he uttered, “We won...but the Iraqi government sent an army to crush us...it was a majority vote for our freedom, but they resorted to force to crush us...All our lives waiting for...for this…and now what? To be threatened, tortured...humiliated…to be denied what we have cherished all our lives. We were the ones who drove ISIS out of their cities…the Peshmarga fight for money, Amreekaa fights for oil, the Arabs…and Iranians fight for religion, we fight for principles…yet in our hour of need we were abandoned…left alone...We lost men, we lost women and children to ISIS but it seems we were used as sacrificial animals.” He was foaming at his mouth now and gasping for words. There was nothing elegant about him anymore, as he struggled to keep up with his outburst. Was he about to buckle? Would he cry now? I shuddered to think he might. He was suddenly a broken man, crushed to lay bare the innards of his soul. I began to pity him and as I did, I was stricken with a pang of guilt, a cross that I will possibly bear for the rest of my days; for no sight beholden to man is ostensibly as tragic, revolting and impressionable as to see another man keel over and come crashing down from a pedestal of grace and dignity, and become a vestige of his former self, much like a mighty ship battered in a storm, left to sink on the high seas, never to be seen again. This is what Pasha had become – a sinking ship, an abhorrent caricature of himself. It was déjà vu: suffering manifest in flesh and blood; grief that I have greeted in the days of yore; sorrow, the illegitimate child of a desire to be “free”. This wasn’t how this evening was supposed to pan out, for all the longings and yearnings of yesteryear are dead, stowed away in cupboards and chests never to be opened again.

Pasha’s tirade hadn’t ended but I was already deep in regret and sooner rather than later, sympathy followed – an emotion I never wanted to have towards this honorable man. I couldn’t stand to see him anymore, so in a jarring display of impertinence, I asked him to fetch the bill. By now, I was in a daze and the world and everything within it had condensed to a cacophony of unintelligible voices. An evening that had been pedestrian at best had suddenly been overtaken by a deluge of thoughts and emotions that shook me to the core. A few minutes later, a bill was handed over to me by someone. I paid and hailed a taxi back home. It should have been an hour past midnight when I opened the door of my house and before I could realise I was in my bed.

And there I lay pondering – about freedom. Within its orthodox definitions and for all its gloriousness, freedom or its want is a very treacherous sentiment. Men live for it and die for it. They dream about it till one day the dream devours them, the dreams that have no end. All semblance of reality is lost on these men. And if ever they wake up from their dream, what is left of their souls? What do they believe in and what gives them peace afterwards? What changes? Do they wake up happier for the rest of their lives or are they reborn with the innocence and mirth of little children? By virtue of its unattainability – as the tyrant clings on to his or her insatiable greed – isn’t the meaning of freedom and its want obfuscated by a more sinister tide of events, whereby cities are pillaged, women raped, men murdered, children orphaned and the places of spiritual succor razed? As I lay there in my bed, my mind inundated with these thoughts, I strived to shake myself free of this rumination. I turned over to catch some sleep. I could not.