An apparition causes havoc by menacing two people in their kitchen. From the London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, 1865/Getty Images
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I was a die-hard sceptic, but then I saw a poltergeist

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

One dim afternoon, I was doing the washing up, when I heard an insistent ticking noise. I looked to my right, and a just-washed wineglass, set aside to dry, was shaking slightly on the kitchen counter. Unthinkingly, I laid a finger on the base of the upended glass, silencing it.

I continued my washing; my brain finally caught up, and I wondered what the ticking noise had been. Then it started up again. I stared at the glass in horror, worrying that it signalled the return of the massive, brown rat that had occupied my kitchen for weeks, and that he was again chewing away at the wood of my cupboards. But no, only the one glass was shaking.

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why, I thought, had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

The ticking and rattling continued. In my mind’s eye I saw the home page of a YouTube channel with thousands of hits, and an increasing bank balance. I grabbed my phone and started filming. Then the fear came, and feeling like a brave reporter, sacrificing her own well being to capture historic footage, I held the phone out in front of me like the exorcist’s crucifix. I imagined myself on the red couch of The One Show, with perfectly coiffed hair, describing my encounter to a rapt audience, obscured by the blazing lights. Fixed to the floor, I watched the rattling glass through the tiny screen, as if its sense of remove could protect me from being ripped limb from limb by a spirit with inhuman strength.

My fiancé returned home from the store. I felt like Eve showing the apple to Adam. “David,” I said, “there’s a supernatural event!” As he watched from over my shoulder, he explained; I had put the glass down so quickly that a vacuum had formed, and as air seeped in under the nearly perfect seal between wet glass rim and counter, the glass shook and rattled. I stopped recording; he switched on a light, and I saw the tell tale foam on the upturned glass’s rim. My encounter with the supernatural had ended.

I was stunned by my credulity, and by how it had affected my thoughts and choices. Where was my sense of scientific inquiry? In my ego and my belief, I had stayed with the poltergeist, filming, afraid of scaring it away; if I had stopped for a moment to turn on the light, I would have seen the foam.

Humans flock to the supernatural. Psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have long wondered why. Perhaps neuroscience will give us an answer, when the brain is finally mapped and understood. The world has always been an inexplicable place; even as humans mastered their environment, they wove stories of gods and spirits, imbuing them with human and animal personalities. By connecting the monstrous, unpredictable world with the smaller unknown of another being’s mind, those gods and spirits kept us from going mad with fear. We can pray to a god, or sacrifice for one; a spirit can be appeased. And, in the two months since I saw the poltergeist, I have realised that despite all of my education and understanding, as soon as there is a gap in my knowledge, the ghosts and spirits will enter.

I must admit that, now, I hunger for this experience. I seek out a sense of the numinous, and I find it, richly and wonderfully, in all elements of human experience. Consider the regular, deep gashes on this washed up log, found beached on the banks of the Tamar River. Was it gouged by the claws of an eldritch sea-beast, or gnawed by fat, writhing caterpillars the size of a duckling? I pause and enjoy these moments. Sometimes my curiosity wins, and I must sleuth out the answer, but sometimes I let my imagination run and find the most creative explanation.

Unfortunately, the world is still a horror. In some senses it is even worse than it was at humanity’s birth. We may know what causes an earthquake, but global poverty means that too many die when their buildings crumble into dust. We may understand climate change, but we still pour greenhouse gases into the air, ignoring our treaties and ensuring that floods and tsunamis will drown and beggar entire peoples. The elites who control us give us ghosts to believe in. They tell us to trust the free market to find solutions to our crises. It is a powerful spirit. In speaking of it, we even refer to market forces; to an invisible hand.

When we contemplate Stonehenge or Uluru, we may believe in ghosts, but we must renounce them when we contemplate our future as a species and a world. It is easy to throw together a few observables and come up with an explanation, but, even today, at the pinnacle of human civilisation, for each penetrating analysis there are many more ghosts. They are UKIP’s stock in trade. Immigrants and Europe did not cause recession, austerity and unemployment; selling our legacy to the bankers did that.

I feel smug here, until I remember that I, too, am susceptible. When I take stock of the horror, death and oppression across the world, I grasp for solutions as fervently as a medieval fisherman might have prayed as he watched the wave engulfing his house, from his vantage point on a high hill. Many ghosts hide within my Marxism, like belief in the infallible and mighty Leninist tradition, belief that building the vanguard party is the only way to save humanity and the planet. Unfortunately, those traditions are gone; I can mourn them, but I must never worship them.

My fiancé David, a counsellor, tells me that a belief is mutable and superficial, but a person’s values are deeper. When I chase away my ghosts, I find my values. I still know that justice exists, and that the workers and poor around the world hold the immense power to change the world in their hands. They are kept quiescent, or divided, or betrayed, by ghosts. And it is not my job to sit here and belittle them for their ghosts. It is my duty to do battle with the ghost-makers, who are, unfortunately, all too real.

 

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle