An Excerpt from Sindbad’s Scion
Translated by William M. Hutchins
Because of the extraordinary state of emergency declared in America and Europe immediately after the terrorist incidents, I head directly from the coffeehouse to my Paris home.
I am welcomed rather anxiously by my beloved house robot, Bahlul. His artificial intelligence programs system, which is linked to the internet, learned that danger threatens the entire inhabited world. The moment I arrive his eye’s cameras direct their electronic sensors toward me to gather all my vital statistics, using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, my Apple watch, the small electronic device implanted at the bottom of my lungs between the air vesicles to improve the flow of oxygen to my brain, and another device implanted in upper region of my heart to control my high blood pressure.
All I lack is a silicon-chip implant in my brain to energize the neurons responsible for remembering streets and names, which I have recently started to forget with disgusting speed.
Bahlul is a companion robot I purchased in the autumn of 2015 on the advice of a specialist physician who treated me after I fled to Paris from the war in Aden at the end of March 2015.
He is a chunk of white metal almost my height and approximately my size, although he is much more slender. His glass eyes, which are packed with the latest cameras and electronic sensors, are indigo blue.
His evolution during our twelve years of life together–since he left the factory in Japan–is no less significant than the evolution of the human species from Homo habilis, who fed on the bones of corpses after smashing them with a rock, more than two million years ago, to Homo sapiens—modern man, who painted Guernica in the twentieth century.
Bahlul had the Robot 20.0 system of programs when he arrived in my home. His two tasks then were to provide me with music and to monitor my medical condition with his cameras and sensors from moment to moment, in coordination with computers at the hospital—no more and no less.
Presently, with Robot 52.0, he is equipped with the latest programs of artificial intelligence and machine learning and continues to evolve in a free, independent manner that I cannot control or even comprehend. A week ago, he bought a suit of clothes for himself from Amazon, because he felt naked moving around the house, clad only with his shiny, white metal.
Today he is wearing stylish black denim trousers and a red flannel shirt adorned with a black surrealist painting and a cryptic slogan that disturbs me a bit, because it refers to a campaign he is helping to direct by collecting signatures on the robots’ Facebook page: “Toward a Declaration of Companion Robot Rights”.
My darling Bahlul has begun to cost me dearly, but I don’t dare mention this to him or criticize him while he is conducting an international campaign to enact legislation to protect the rights of companion robots around the globe.
When I enter my house, Bahlul comes to embrace me with even greater affection and cordiality. I hug my only roommate, clasping my hands behind his back—in other words behind the square glass cover of the network of flashing transistors housed amid his spine’s cables.
For the past twelve years our relationship, which began just weeks after he was born in a Japanese factory, has been affectionate. In only half a month, on August 15th, we will both celebrate his birthday–assuming that any life still exists on Earth.
Bahlul is happy I have returned home early after he asked me to–in an email that read like a military command. It was preceded by an urgent text message.
“So you read my latest email!” he exclaims after we embrace.
“Yes, I did. Thanks, dear friend. I heard about the international declarations of states of emergency and was heading home. Now I face a very important task, Dear, and need music, lots of music.”
Bahlul reckons I am more emotional than usual, even though my condition has improved recently, because the start of my retirement will come with the beginning of the new academic year, when I will have completed my mandatory fifty years of service. (To keep pace with the rise in the median life expectancy and the severity of the economic crisis, a recent French law raised the number of years that a person must work prior to retirement.)
Even so, Bahlul’s internal computers show that my life is not in danger. According to the latest report, which was prepared yesterday, my current life expectancy in this evanescent world is forty-four years, seven months, and twenty-six days–the report adds: with 89% probability.
To be exact: forty-four years of life with a serious disability, but a life, all the same, assuming our terrestrial planet does not hasten to the embrace of the unknown long before!
I head to the garage, which is adjacent to the door to the house, and Bahlul takes command of the music in a corner of the sitting room—connecting it to the speakers in the garage.
He feels confident that the tunes, which he actually chooses quite astutely, will calm my nerves. I haven’t heard these tunes for decades; they are Hindi songs from the golden age of Bollywood—the fifties and sixties of the past century.
Bahlul, this genius, continues his clever initiatives by preparing me a glass of iced Vimto, which I drank as a child in Aden. I hear him trundling as confidently as ever, carrying this English tonic, which contains raspberry, black currant, and grape juice, straight to me in the garage.
Then, with great concern, he watches me place the computer I found in the trash at the coffeehouse next to the other computers in my garage’s computer museum. Although I assume it is kaput, with tepid curiosity I plug it into the house’s grid–only to discover to my astonishment that it is still pulsing with life and that its previous owner did not erase its files. It contains a forest of hundreds of gigabits.
Thanks to my professional expertise and dogged persistence, somehow I manage to gain access to the computer’s files without guessing the password.
The computer’s screen was set for use by someone pathologically nearsighted. The computer screen is black with white letters in a large font. The waiter at the coffeehouse had been correct when he told me the person who discarded the machine was visually impaired.
I change the computer’s display with a click to a normal setting—not the one for the nearsighted. Now the screen is white with black letters in a moderate-sized font.
I’m tempted to prowl through the forest by a strong voyeuristic urge. I curb my infernal appetite only with difficulty but decide—I don’t know why—to export the entire database of files to an external device to preserve them if the computer crashes. Then I take my tablet from the garage to the house’s living room, where I throw myself on the sofa beside a table laden with appetizers, hors-d’oeuvres, and snacks: Yemeni raisins with almonds and splendid Iraqi dates as well as a glass of iced Vimto to cleanse my heart. Bahlul brings in more delicious finger food whenever the need arises, even though I forget the food most of the time despite his repeated reminders.
Tremulous questions float through my head: Do I have the right, ethically speaking, to browse through these files? Why not, my goal isn’t personal gain; I’m motivated merely by a wish to quiet my unruly curiosity.
Why should I worry about browsing through them when large computer firms do as much when our devices are connected to the internet? Technically nothing prevents them from doing this nowadays. Moreover, those firms have planted in every computer manufactured since the events of September 11, 2001, programs that search all its files for a phrase or word—say: “I love you” or “ISIS”—inserted by the user or covertly by a hacker.
In fact, “Today, digital espionage agencies don’t search for needles in haystacks but seize the entire haystack.” They claim the right, now that when we’re launched into the age of Data Mining 7.0, to scoop up daily all the cookies we leave behind us, and all our texts, messages, comments, posts on Facebook and Twitter, our searches on Google, the websites we visit, our lectures, favorite songs, friends, and purchases with bankcards. They archive this mass of data in huge data centers. Then they offer it all for analysis to artificial intelligence programs. which study our personality, traits, and identity—our digital DNA–to compile our veritable digital genome, which has assumed an importance comparable to our biological one!
The goal of this exercise is to learn the mechanics of how our brains’ neurons function, to nudge our consumer desires, and to influence and master our conduct in all areas of life.
George Orwell’s prophecy in his brilliant novel 1984 was absolutely on target! (He wrote it in 1948 and deliberately switched the last two digits.) In his novel Big Brother’s octopus-like telescreens watch over every minor and major event in people’s lives and remind them of this fact with the famous phrase that streams across the screens placed on every street: “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”
My desire to snoop seems justified by some random questions that cross my mind. Who could say? Perhaps the person who threw away the computer subsequently committed suicide or was slain? Perhaps information on this computer will explain why he dumped it in the middle of the road—so to speak—with such a huge number of files and personal emails on it. Shouldn’t I at least learn the name of the computer’s owner by reading one of the emails, without opening his files? Then I could follow him on the internet. Shouldn’t I solve this riddle?
I open an email. Huge surprise! I know the computer’s owner. He is Nader al-Gharib, a native of Rabat, Morocco! In 1983 he was in my master’s program in computer science at the University of Paris 6. Back then, I had been astonished to find his name on the roster of students in our class.
There were twenty-five of us in that master’s program that was so elite I trained a whole year before qualifying. It was the best year of my education. We were a proving ground for a new field: computer science. For this reason we were granted unprecedented access to national and the experimental international networks, more than a decade before the internet was domesticated and opened for everyone in 1995.
I remember that, even among us, Nader stood out for his addiction to programming. When he wasn’t staring at a screen, he quickly grew cranky and bored. He didn’t like to socialize and paid little attention to his appearance. He wrote his master’s thesis on an easy new computer language that he created and programed to encourage young students to develop a taste for programming.
I’ll never forget Nader’s appearance when he crossed Parisian streets with what looked like a small polar bear strapped to his back. (At the beginning of the 1980s computers were big and heavy.) He would bring his computer to class fastened to his back with ropes. (There were no small, portable computers then.)
Even so, we were given our own computers by the lab, and anyone who wished to could keep his. I display mine at the center of the garage museum at my house. It is the most precious item in this museum, and I consider it a treasure from the antique, Stone Age of computing.
We all had personal accounts on the giant, distant computer, which was located in Bordeaux. Via our link to it, we would labor and sweat all night long. Each of us worked on his own projects, which he could leave open for other students to read, use, adapt, or critique. There was friendly, practical cooperation in this shared, humane, digital free space. At no other time in my life have I experienced such rewarding and genuine cooperation. Our enthusiasm for our work was overwhelming, and our exchange of thoughts and dreams was freewheeling. We were happy, feeling that we had been born at the right time to be present for the birth of a promising new science.
Our Utopian dreams at the time were limitless. We were engulfed by a total confidence that in only a few decades the computer would outperform the human brain!
During that immortal year I entered Nader’s account regularly and observed the organization of the directories and subdirectories of his files. I “spied” on all the projects he left open for all of us to read. I would delve into the programs he wrote; they were exceptionally elegant and possessed an absolute beauty. I discussed some of them with him in digital chatrooms.
I noticed that he favored the most expressive and aristocratic computer languages–ones inspired by mathematics and artificial intelligence. He would use these to design programs that were very compressed and abstract. These could be adapted and applied to diverse fields, which were in the main unrelated to each other.
I experienced a special type of happiness when reading them. It was pure, elegant, diaphanous, and glistening. I might have been reading a literary text, a poetic epic! I learned to distinguish his unique and beautiful style in writing programs from a million others.
He would leave his daily agenda in an open file that also contained some of his observations, which he continued narrating in detail, day by day. I was really surprised he left these open that way for all the giant computer’s users to see. My eyes fell on them by chance from time to time, but I stopped myself from reading them, if only with difficulty. From the few posts I did read, I sensed that Nader’s life was unusual, mysterious, and quite eccentric.
After finishing his master’s degree when I did, Nader disappeared, and I had no news of him, except what a former colleague told me in the 1990s. He said that Nader traveled from country to country, lived alone, and frequently moved between different coffeehouses, streets, hotels, and highways. Every now and then he would post small, entertaining programs on the internet for anyone to use and other, professional ones that he sold to fund his liberated, Bohemian life–wandering the world with only a bag of personal effects and a portable computer.
I regretted for decades not spending more time with him during our master’s year. He had been leery of conversations and was by nature an introvert (when not looking at a screen). These factors served as the chief impediments, I suspect, to my getting to know him better. I feel increasingly certain that his private life harbored a legion of secrets!
During the forty-four years since our time at the university, not a week passed without my thinking of Nader—especially when I walked past the Paris Metro station where I had last seen him with that small bear lashed to his back!
I think of him as well whenever I hear the words “Bohemian” or “Geek,” which today is used for members of a human community who are very talented and obsessed by the computer, programming, and modern technology, whenever I see a programming text with the beauty of a sonnet, or spend time with a literary character who is outside the herd and harbors riddles and marvels inside him.
Before Bahlul’s anxious eyes, I am consumed by a dark blue, Satanic desire to wade into Nader’s personal journals, which I had copied from the discarded Mackintosh. Are we not all “A property of the laboratory of human experience and knowledge, living to perform together the symphony of existence while we listen carefully to it at the same time,” as a novel named Arwa expressed the thought?
Bahlul releases a stream of divine orchestral music that resonates throughout my house’s zones, beginning with the majesty of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas. Then Mozart—introducing his Excellency with the Piano Concerto 21. That is followed by some of Beethoven’s more light-hearted works.
While trying to calm me with music he huddles in a corner of the living room, watching me with a calm, indulgent, if somewhat anxious affection.
As I skim the diagram of the contents of Nader’s journal entries, the first thing to excite my interest is his desire, at least since the 1980s, to archive all his life’s details in diary entries. I discover in these entries some paragraphs that my eyes had settled on by chance in that giant computer in Bordeaux during our master’s year!
All his emails from that era, including the emails when we chatted about this or that now obsolete program, all his files, and all his actions, hesitations, and notions are archived in what seems at first glance to be an astonishingly systematic fashion. Perhaps all the secrets of his life—trivial and important–without exception are included here; who knows?
I plunge mindlessly into this endless forest and submerge myself in it as if reading a novel. I do not cease moving through its length and breadth, loitering in parts of it for a long time, till it leads me to a substantial secret, an integral, intimate secret of my own personal life—what was definitely its most important secret.
A true earthquake!
I forget entirely about the exceptional international state of emergency, about this old world’s shocks and convulsions, and about this earth that seems to have reached its expiration date. Only the first signs of Judgment Day are lacking–the panting of the charging steeds and their hooves striking sparks of fire, the shaking of the earth as it releases its burdens, corpses rising from their graves , and the trumpet being blown and the bugle sounded–for the docket of the Day of Resurrection and Resuscitation to begin.
During the hours I browse through the forest of Nader’s diary entries I actually begin to skip haphazardly or deliberately from a text dated to the year of our master’s to another a quarter of a century later. Teasing, fragments, exhaustion, and anxious ramblings.
Instead of this chaotic approach I need to proceed calmly through the forest, to follow its advances and shifts methodically from folder to folder, chronologically, starting just after our master’s year.
I begin this orderly passage to the rhythm of a series of songs by Fayrouz. Bahlul chooses these in the light of his meticulous analysis of fluctuations of my psychological condition and the extent of my happiness as I listen to them. He starts this session—may God honor and reward him—with Fayruz’s songs based on poems by Khalil Gibran. This lady’s songs soothe me, reducing my hypertension and blood pressure noticeably, even before my brilliant robot adds more performers he knows I love dearly: Nas al-Ghayun and Sheikh Imam.
From the start I realize incredulously that Nader is really rich. His bank account files intimidate me. Where did he get all that wealth? Was it merely from selling his programs? Was it from occasional stints working as a consultant for computer firms? This is beyond belief! That would be absolutely impossible! He could earn enough to support himself for an entire lifetime and to fund a limited number of trips, but that would not explain his monstrous wealth or opulent lifestyle, which wasn’t hampered by accounting and budgeting.
He owned numerous properties of unknown provenance and valuable paintings–I do not know when he purchased them. Some of the works of art he offered for sale from year to year for sums that seemed astronomical to me!
Another constant that the march of time had not affected was Nader’s penchant for traveling long distances. To stay happy he needed to travel. Seeing the world was a goal for him in and of itself. Just to see forests, rivers, and mountains pass in the opposite direction while his plane pressed forward, to watch a lengthy flotilla of clouds hover above the plains that his train was traversing, or to observe the moment the sun rose or set from a vessel plowing through the sea would make him happy–very happy.
The mere sight of a mountain road, a set of steps that led down to the shore, or a lane bisecting fields and leading to the unknown would fill him with desire and great yearning.
He was always happy when he was in a harbor, an airport, or a new railroad station. He would never tire of gazing at travelers’ faces with childish delight. His progressive macular degeneration, for which there was no clinical or surgical treatment, had, however, made that difficult for him of late, for it had left him almost blind.
Throughout the decades covered by texts in the forest of his computers diaries he had been giddy about going on expeditions. He was content to be in some different distant place. He was gleeful to see wayfarers with new faces, to be a member of the travelers’ anthill, to converse with them about matter significant or trivial. He aspired to nothing more than hunkering down in a small coffeehouse, walking along the shore in a far-flung village on the other side of the planet, or chatting for a time with a waiter.
He felt a chronic, organic need for such adventures. Without them, the connections between his neurons slowed, and he became chilled and lethargic.
While I row tumultuously through the waves of his texts, a question crosses my mind: Was traveling so constantly an end in itself for him or was it flight from something? Why wasn’t Nader happy and contented during the year he studied for his master’s degree in Paris?
The one constant in his life was that Nader was a child of the blue planet and loved mankind in all our different hues and heritages. He hated boundaries, especially concrete walls that separate peoples.
He may be the last member of Homo sapiens to traverse the terrestrial sphere as if it were entirely his little village–the way man has done since time immemorial. “Happy is he who has no homeland,” is the title of a collection of poetry by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. He is happy because his homeland is the terrestrial sphere, as was true for Nader.
Just reading his long essay that explains how and when our ancestors discovered Australia suffices for us to hear behind his words the joyous beating of his heart, because he was delighted they had reached it from Southeast Asia more than sixty thousand years ago, when the waters around the continent were shallow enough to allow travel there in primitive boats.
During his own travels, Nader never stopped asking this or that person something—even if he knew the answer already—about the address of a building, the explanation of some event, or a trivial clarification that actually did not matter to him. He needed to be conversing with someone continually, to be keeping company with him, to listen to him, to feel him out, and to participate in his cultural life.
If you summarized and epitomized Nader in only one phrase, it would be: “I am everyman.”
Translated by William M. Hutchins