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Climbing Mount Toubkal
by James Cowan

Also by James Cowan:

An Interview with James Cowan, Australian Novelist and Poet, about his new book on St. Anthony

Towards a Charter for a New Global Philosophy by James Cowan

James Cowan on John of the Cross



It was an early summer morning when I made the decision to climb Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. Reputedly a haven for holy men’s tombs, whose whitewashed marbouts covered with fluttering pennants graced valleys leading to its summit, Mount Toubkal was considered sacred by many Berber villagers who lived on its slopes. Their mud-brick houses, clinging precariously to rocky inclines and wadis, were reminiscent of a naturally formed cubism. The work of Picasso, it seems, had already been prefigured in these terraced villages whose inhabitants loved to wear brightly colored clothing, even when working in the fields, in contrast to the more conservative garb worn by their brethren in Marrakech.

I had been living in the Berber capital for nearly a year now, in a tiny apartment in the medina on Derba Abidallah (‘Street of Shadows’). The city had attracted me because of the fame of its craftsmen, and because of its reputation as a centre of learning during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. I was aware, for example, that the famed Moorish philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known in the West as Averroes, had lived out his last years in Marrakech, an exile from his beloved Cordova. The idea that somewhere in the medina, perhaps even on the street where I lived, one of the greatest exponents of Aristotle had resided, did not go entirely unnoticed. The Street of Shadows, I decided, may well have been illuminated by a more subtle brilliance than that of street lamps.

Ibn Rushd postulated a theory known as ‘double truth’, which attempted to reconcile revelation and reason. His contemporaries reviled him for his opinions, believing that to use reason in the interpretation of the Koran would ultimately lead to the death of religion itself. This was primarily the excuse given for his exile from Andalucia in the first place. Fortunately his ideas were taken up by Siger of Brabant (1235-1282), a teacher at the University of Paris, who taught that the conclusions of reason in its philosophical use, though sometimes contrary to the truths of revelation, did not mean that they should be dismissed out of hand. Siger argued that both methods should be accepted; hence the idea of the theory of ‘double truth’ acting as a bridge between reason and faith.

The traveler Ibn Battuta was another visitor to Marrakech whose work I admired. His remarks on the city are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them in 1352. ‘It is one of the most beautiful cities, spaciously built and extending over a wide area, with abundant supplies. It contains magnificent mosques, such as its principal mosque, known as the Mosque of Kutubiyin [the Booksellers]. There is a marvelously tall minaret there; I climbed it and obtained a view of the whole town from it. At Marrakech there is a splendid college [medressa], distinguished by its fine and solid construction.’ Surrounded by a seven-mile wall, even today the city rises from the surrounding plain within sight of the distant snow-capped Atlas Mountains, a veritable mirage. Often in the late afternoon, when I needed a break from my studies, I used to stroll through one of the gates simply to observe the sun setting on its rose colored ramparts.

There I was able to contemplate my good fortune. To live in a city where diversity was the hallmark of everyday life made me realize why I liked it so much. I could feel at once free and constrained at the same time. My freedom was borne on the wings of the opportunities that its network of alleys provided me with to indulge my love of strange and exotic objects. A row of sheep’s heads in a butcher’s shop, their mouths slightly open as if half smiling, was suggestive of some primitive hieroglyph denoting number; colored yarn hanging out to dry on bamboo poles above an alley made me think of a palanquin pitched in the desert; watching a snake charmer perform in Place Djemaa el-fna, the central square at the heart of the medina, at once alerted me to the synergy that exists between music and poison. Wherever I looked I realized that almost every alley in Marrakech, with their unlimited supply of goods on sale designed to seduce the eye, intimated a perfect escape from the real world. Freedom here was embodied in the delight in visual excess.

Constraint, however, manifested itself in other ways. To watch two young woman cross Djemaa el-fna on their way to market, wearing jellabas that covered them from head to toe, their smiles concealed behind a black veil, was to understand how prohibition adds poignancy to any assessment of beauty. A look, a glance becomes the epitome of seduction; a bared ankle the promise of a forbidden tryst being played out behind walls decorated with mosaics; a hennaed hand raised in recognition the sign that you have been noticed. What cannot be seen or touched conjures up a new, more refined encounter with the senses. They become provenders of a passion that has no limit. It is only then that you realize that things that remain out of reach are always more desirable than those that are easily accessible. True freedom, it seems, lies in the pleasure and pain of abstinence.

Of course I had friends there who made my life pleasant. Jilalli was one, a young merchant who ran a carpet shop on a street not far from where I lived. I would see him every day when I walked up to Djemaa el-fna to take coffee with other foreign residents living in the medina. He would greet me with a ‘Salaam’, hunched as he was in his burnous as he sat among his woven blankets and brass-intaglioed coffee tables. Like many merchants in the souk Jilalli did not venture forth from Marrakech, either into the mountains or over them to the desert beyond. The stark aridity of the Sahara was for him something of a state of mind, a mental construct that he had carried since birth. He didn’t need to travel there as it existed on the frontier of his imagination, a land of illimitable silence where poems were fashioned, and where a man was forever beholden to the impotence of his limbs.

This is all by way of filling in the background to why I decided to climb Mount Toubkal that morning. Like Jilalli, I had of late found myself too engrossed in the life of the city. Even when I strolled outside the walls of an evening, I always felt that this was merely a pretense for quitting the medina. Marrakech was like a giant sea anemone, drawing everyone and everything into its clutches. It stopped at nothing to ensure that people remained within the confines of its walls, there to be entranced by its sights and sounds. I was no more immune to these than were its inhabitants. Marrakech was a nationality-free zone, content to welcome strangers, to feed them, to allow them to become absorbed into its social fabric. Whether you were from Mauritania or Algeria, London or Paris, Marrakech was large enough to encompass all. The end and the beginning of a number of major trade routes throughout northwest Africa, the city was less a bazaar than it was a metropolis of the mind. Ideas were exchanged here for the profit of the soul, just as salt was among merchants conducting their business over mint tea at the rear of a shop.

This cosmopolitan atmosphere must have made it easier for Ibn Rushd to live out the twilight of his career, surrounded by thinkers such as himself. His Destruction of Destruction, a studied advocacy of the unchangeable nature of deity, dismissed the idea of continuous creation in favor of a world and its workings being necessary and invariable. Since God had to be and did not change, so too did the world remain at the summit of the scale of being, as it was his creation. The active intelligence of deity could scarcely behave otherwise. Any fantastic flight of the mind into a realm of ultimate, immaterial reality could not be as a result of God’s intervention. It could only be at the behest of instability in the minds of men. Thus the world’s qualities were the laws of its nature realized in the physical objects formed from matter. Seen by the eye as fleeting individual shapes, and perceived by the intellect as permanent generalizations, they remained contained by these objects like the stamp of a die realized as an image on an Almohad coin. Such knowledge, like the mind, became intrinsic to the natural order, and logic was its vehicle for unveiling the final truth. Therefore the disclosures of revelation, the highest secrets of God, were always susceptible to explanation. In a law-abiding universe, rational explanation was as important as faith. In these arguments, so carefully considered, Ibn Rushd paved the way for a closer analysis of the universe, and so to the birth of modern science. That he was exiled for his opinions says more about the fragility of inquiry in the twelfth century. It was still a tentative bloom.

Which meant that Marrakech, like all big cities, was very much a hothouse catering to every possible mutation. It became necessary, occasionally, to travel outside its walls in order to reestablish contact with the nature that Ibn Rushd was so committed to defending. But this didn’t mean that I did not see him in the faces of old men leaving Koutoubia mosque after Friday prayers. The great man was always present, it seemed, a living flame that warmed the chill air much as braziers do of an evening in Djemaa el-fna. Whatever opponents might have thought of him, he was always going to represent the intellectual heart of Marrakech, even though the blood of commerce that circulated through its maze of alleys was bent on other pursuits barely associated with the true nature of the real. It made me understand why philosophers were considered to be such unique figures in any society in those far off times: they palpitated, they freed up the mental arteries and oxygenated the extremities of being.


I boarded a bus at the central bus station by the Café Glacier in the square, bound for the village of Imlil, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Imlil was a small market town built on the side of a steeply sloping valley, its mud brick houses brown against the grassy terraces already under plough. The square where we alighted after a two-hour drive was filled with mules, their owners sitting on a wall ready to pounce on any prospective climber as he stepped down from the bus. I wasn’t the only visitor to the region, it appeared. In excess of 12,000ft, Mount Toubkal posed a challenge to amateur climbers like myself as well as the more seasoned campaigner.

I hired a guide by the name of Mahmoud who willingly offered me his mule to ride. After we settled on a fee and purchased a few provisions for the journey, Mahmoud and I set out along a bridle path that skirted the left hand side of a stream. Once we were out of sight of the village, Mahmoud proceeded to argue about the fee. He informed me that if I were to ride all the way up to the summit on his mule, then I must pay extra due to the fatigue factor experienced by his donkey. Our palaver went on for quite some time, ebbing and flowing as each new argument was raised.

"I must think of my mule," Mahmoud reasoned. "It will wear out if I do not care for the animal."

"It’s not a car," I responded, conscious that the further we traveled from Imlil the weaker my negotiating position became.

"But I must purchase extra feed to make up for the loss of his strength. You, monsieur, are not a small person," argued Mahmoud, appraising my bulk with a critical eye.

Brigandage, I realized, was still very much alive in these mountains. Now that Mahmoud had me where he wanted, I was to be subjected to a continuous harangue until I finally gave in. The prospect of climbing Mount Toubkal, while engaging in prolonged dispute over money, did not seem to me to be entirely appropriate. Finally I admitted defeat, and offered Mahmoud another hundred dirhams. The money wasn’t important; what was important was that Mahmoud’s pride as a negotiator remained intact. Victory had been achieved, and he readily spurred on the animal with me clinging to its neck.

Slowly we ascended the valley. I could see the summit of the mountain far off in the distance, a solitary peak now almost bare of snow and occasionally blemished by cloud. Soon my lungs began to feel the effects of altitude and I was conscious of gasping for breath. On either side of the valley I noticed Berber villages clinging to the slopes, each surrounded by an island of cultivation. Sheep grazed contentedly on these slopes, as did herds of goats. The valley was a picture of rustic charm, which made me feel that I had somehow stepped back in time. I became aware that the further we traveled from Imlil, the nearer we were to entering into what Arab theologians called the ‘eternity of the world’.

Often we passed Berber women coming down from the fields dressed in clothing more in keeping with harlequins. The women were addicted to bright colors. Coming towards us, their mules swayed under them as they negotiated the narrow track beyond which lay a drop of some hundreds of feet into the stream below. They smiled at us, not at all shy in the presence of a stranger, content rather to chatter among themselves at this strange apparition from afar. It appeared that someone from the outside world had deigned to grace them with his presence. Clearly I was to be the subject of gossip for days to come when finally they arrived home in their villages. Did you know? One of them might say. I saw a foreigner climbing towards the summit of our holy mountain today. Propriety, it seems, is the last refuge of those who cherish places sanctified by custom and prayer.

Higher up the mountain track we stumbled upon a shrine where a local saint was buried. Dedicated to Sidi Chamharouch, the whitewashed tomb was surmounted by a dome and decorated with colored flags. Asses and mules stood in nearby pens knee-deep in straw. On a rocky ledge overlooking the tomb a number of women sat about in a circle carding wool. When we arrived, they stopped their work to gaze at us. I was conscious that we were being appraised as to whether we might be worthy visitors or not. It was as if Sidi Chamharouch’s tomb had become the official point of entry where permission to climb Mount Toubkal was either granted or withheld. Mahmoud waved to the women as we passed, signifying to them that I could be trusted to respect the mountain.

Late that afternoon we arrived at a refuge for the night. The hut consisted of one large room built of stone. Inside there were two long benches and a table covered in tin. A number of Moroccans had already staked their claim to various corners of the room where they had laid out their bedrolls for the night. There was one European gentleman, a bespectacled man in his mid-sixties and obviously a seasoned climber judging by his boots, who sat at one end of the table writing in a notebook. He turned out to be a doctor working for a government agency in Meknes, who told me that he often spent his holidays roaming the Atlas Mountains collecting wildflowers. It was a hobby of his, cataloguing what he called the ‘blooms of the Maghreb’. It sounded like an incantation when he uttered these words. His name was Jacques – Dr. Jacques Rivierre – and he came from Avignon in southern France.

We struck up a casual conversation over our meal that evening, our faces lit by candles propped up in tobacco tins on the table. We must have looked very much like characters in a de la Tour painting, our features deeply shadowed in chiaroscuro. Climbing mountains, of course, was largely the topic of conversation. Dr. Rivierre came from a region renowned for its interesting morphology, consisting of spectacular cliffs that had emerged from eroded limestone massifs over long periods of geological time. He spoke of one mountain in particular, Mount Ventoux, not high but certainly a very beautiful summit, standing alone as it did overlooking the Vaucluse plain not all that far from Avignon. According to the doctor Mount Ventaux was a mountain of special significance; for it was here that the poet Petrarch had experienced one of his most salutary insights.

Together with his brother, Petrarch set out one morning in April 1336 to climb the mountain. Carrying enough knowledge of the Classics to smother all but the most original of thoughts, the poet managed to survive his early encounters with the steep terrain and his own laziness. ‘I tried to find an easier route,’ he later wrote, ‘and was not afraid to palliate my laziness by wandering through valleys when no more comfortable access was revealed. In vain my fatigue grew heavier. Feeling utterly disgusted with myself, I decided to attempt the ascent with more considered effort. Weary and exhausted, I finally reached my brother who was refreshed by a good long rest. I soon realized that my escape into the valleys in search of an easier path was my way of putting off the disagreeable strain of climbing.’ It was at this point that Petrarch began to understand the significance of his prevarication and his rather dilatory attempt to climb the mountain: ‘Nature is not overcome by man’s devices; an corporeal thing cannot reach the heights by descending.’ Suddenly Petrarch’s thoughts took wing, and he was able to address himself in a way that was to be a turning point in his – and our - relationship with nature. From henceforth the physical world was to be invested with the transforming power of metaphor.


What you have so often experienced today while climbing this mountain happens to you, you must understand, and to many others who are making their way towards the blessed life. Men do not easily understand this, because the motions of the body lie open, while those of the mind are invisible and hidden. The life we call blessed is located on a high peak. A narrow way leads up to it. Many hilltops intervene, and we must proceed ‘from virtue to virtue’ with exalted steps. On the highest summit is set the end of all, the goal towards which our pilgrimage is directed. Every man wants to arrive there, but wanting is not enough. You must have a longing that transcends all self-deception. What is it that holds you back? Evidently nothing but the smoother way that leads through the meanest earthly pleasures. Having strayed far into error, you must either ascend to the summit of the blessed life under the burden of striving hard, often ill deferred, or descend into the valley of your basest errors.

Such was Petrarch’s revelation as he sat on a stone half way up Mount Ventoux, fatigued and deeply frustrated with himself, in the company of his brother who, in contrast to him, had taken the more direct but strenuous path up the slope. This was a moment when the European mind considered not only the interdependence of man with nature, but also his failings as a spiritual being. Mount Ventoux had awakened in the poet a sense of his own mediocrity when faced with the glory of the physical world. Like Ibn Rushd some centuries before him, he suddenly realized how small he was, and how minuscule was his ego in the presence of this mountain. As a result of what he called his feeling of ‘earthly enjoyment’ Petrarch took out a copy of Augustine’s Confessions that had been given to him by a friend prior to his excursion. He opened the pages at random, in keeping with a similar gesture made by his hero at a critical time when the saint, too, felt himself at a crossroad in his life, and also had opened the Bible at random.* There Petrarch read: ‘As men go to admire the high mountains, the vast floods of the sea, the huge streams of the rivers, the circumference of the ocean, and the revolutions of the stars – they desert themselves.’ ** At once he recognized how limited he had been all his life, relying as he had upon notoriety, esteem, and vanity to bolster his own sense of self-importance. ‘I was stunned,’ he confessed. ‘I bade my brother, who wanted to hear more, not to molest me, and closed the book. I was angry with myself that I still admired earthly things. I realized then what Cicero had told me long ago: "Nothing is admirable besides the mind; compared to its greatness nothing is great."’

On a mountain in southern France a man – a poet, no less - was forced to confront himself. It was, in a sense, one of the key moments of the early Renaissance. Petrarch confessed that it was the moment when he turned his ‘inner eye upon himself.’ What he called his ‘empty parading’, a condition that he readily admitted to having suffered from for much of his life, was no longer enough to sustain him. Even as he turned back during his decent of the mountain and looked up at its peak, he acknowledged the supreme height of human thought when compared to the height of Mount Ventoux. Man, he believed, and himself in particular, if he wished to raise himself ‘nearer to heaven’, must not fear hardship or desire the ‘smoothness of comfort.’ The mountain had spoken: from this day onward Petrarch must rise above earthly instincts if he were to become a true poet.

While the candles flickered about our faces, Dr. Rivierre concluded his story with a personal observation of his own: "There is a little of Petrarch in all of us, I believe. In part this is why we climb mountains. I am of the opinion that he chose to carry Augustine’s Confessions with him because he knew that at some point during his climb the saint would emerge from its dust covers and speak to him. By duplicating his act of random selection, Petrarch hoped to find a way forward out of the abyss of self in which he found himself. Mount Ventoux became an act of erasure, blotting out his pre-conceptions, diminishing the value of his achievements, and reducing him to that of being little more than a silly old man at the mercy of his ineptitude. Is it possible, monsieur, that Petrarch was one of the few men of his time to acknowledge the need for annihilation? Snow lay upon him, and he was waiting for spring to melt the waters, thus allowing the first flowers to blossom in his heart. Forgive my allusion: I am a great lover of flowers, as you know."

I was touched by the good doctor’s explanation of Petrarch’s motives. Since I hardly knew of the poet before our discussion, it seemed reasonable enough to assume that he had climbed down from Mount Ventoux a different man. I knew for certain that poetry allows us a taste for our inner destiny, as its adherence to the invisible makes this possible. Petrarch, presumably, by climbing the mountain and reading Augustine, had gained insight into his inner destiny only because he had deliberately attempted to avoid climbing in the first place! The irony of his predicament was not lost on me. I could see him pretending to climb, when in reality he was searching for a way down. Built into him was a deep need to escape. He was looking for a comfortable alternative. The metaphor of the mountain was subjecting him to his own personal sense of annihilation.

I fell asleep on the floor of the hut that night, my head partly under the table on a makeshift pillow, thinking of Petrarch clawing his way up his mountain. Outside, through a window, I could see the night sky overhead, its stars awash with a peculiar luminance. I told myself then that our very limbs depend on this light; that when we are in rhythm with nature both men and the universe participate in one joint existence. It was this observation that made me understand Petrarch more. He had been a man on a mission: to renovate consciousness, cleanse it of its outmoded vision of selfhood, and bring into existence a new kind of forbearance. I told myself that the world is always a better place when a poet acknowledges his errors. Like the philosopher, he is the lightning rod of our species. He is able to harness the tremendous energy of the invisible, something that might kill ordinary mortals, and channel it through himself into the earth. He becomes, so to speak, the great nitrogenator of the world.

The next morning I said goodbye to Dr. Rivierre, who was returning to Imlil on his way back to Meknes, and set out on foot up the path towards the summit of Mount Toubkal in Mahmoud’s company. Aside from a few slicks of snow on the ground, for the most part the mountain was covered in stony tumuli, and was utterly bare of plants. I asked myself what the good doctor had expected to find up here, high above the snow line. A paleobotanical wonderland, perhaps? Fossilized ferns? Had he been collecting long extinct pollens? The more I struggled up the track, gasping for breath every few yards as my lungs contracted in the thin air, I tried to picture Dr. Rivierre wandering about, lifting stones, scratching at the surface of the ground with an alpine pick. He had been on a mission to discover one of his Maghrebi blooms, this much was certain.

Within an hour I was in sight of the summit. The narrow ridge leading up to it was forbidding, a ladder devoid of rungs. With each step I felt myself growing increasingly disconnected from my body. It was as if I were floating in a chrism of air, even though I knew that there was very little of that up there on the mountain! I had become a bird, an eagle perhaps, hovering above these crags, a speck in endless space, adrift on uncertain eddies. While it was not an unpleasant sensation, it was also rather frightening. I was expecting at any moment to become, suddenly, unsuspended, an object once more in gravity’s grasp and so falling rapidly to earth. Even as this sensation overcame me, and I tried to put one foot beyond the next, I kept thinking of the ground beneath my feet as some sort of safety net. I had become a trapeze artist, as if balancing on a thin metal cord strung out between two poles, a man in the act of resisting what was clearly inevitable.

I was not conscious of stopping, or of sitting down, yet I did so. I was not even aware that Mahmoud had continued on up the path towards the summit without me. All I could think of was Ibn Rushd in his exile, quietly penning his book Destruction of the Destruction in a room above an alley in the medina of Marrakech. Of course he may have written the book in Cordova; but nonetheless I could see him at the window, his head bent over, pensive, the words slowly flowing from his quill to form dark lines of probity that in turn appeared, strangely, to glimmer like the stars I had witnessed the night before through the window. Celestial entities and words had become confused in my mind to form a kind of miasma of conflicting thoughts similar to those that Petrarch had experienced on Mount Ventoux. The thin air on the mountain was already beginning to play tricks with my mind.

Can it be, I asked myself, that we all at times find ourselves confronting Petrarch’s predicament, even as we climb our own personal mountain? While we might argue about the interpretation of virtue or the nature of the blessed life as intimated by the poet, there was still some truth to his personal exhortation to try to avoid the pitfalls of those valleys – which, I presume, were made up of indecision as much as any willful act of denial on his part. It was important to recognize that Petrarch had to overcome his own age as much as himself. This was a situation we all find ourselves in on occasions – of trying to forge a path upwards, or, let’s say – away from the predilections of the obvious. He knew, as we do, that every process of disintegration in the order of the world is irreversible, and that its effects are invariably hidden and often delayed by what Italo Calvino called the ‘dust cloud of the great numbers’. Limitless possibilities and new symmetries are prone to be realized, often to the detriment of the simple bedrock of existence, the solitary mountain that stands there, beckoning us to make our ascent.

I tried to imagine what it must be like to be a poet or a philosopher, each condemned to a kind of inwardness that precluded every form of self-deception imaginable. Ibn Rushd had been wrenched from a secure life as a medical practitioner and court advisor in Cordova and ordered to quit Andalucia so as to appease the literalists who feared where his dialogue with the real might take them. They were afraid that what lay before them, his so-called vision of ‘double truth’, might in some way compromise the rigidity of their faith. For them the Koran was an act of revelation designed to resist all efforts to interpret it in the light of scientific inquiry. What one saw, and understood, must be kept within the cage of orthodoxy, an animal imprisoned for its perceived acts of savagery and wildness. As far as they were concerned the truth had no right to be free; it must be tamed, domesticated, and turned into a beast of burden. They had regarded Ibn Rushd as no more than a latch-lifter, a man who preferred to cause mayhem among the learned by setting truth free in order to cover up his escape. ‘Double truth’ for them was a renegade, there to undermine and diminish further the moribund nature of thinking and of belief.

Yet, for Petrarch, the issue was more complex in that it had become personal. His reputation had been built up in the public domain, the celebrated thinker and poet who had taken upon himself to give back to Latin all the sonorities of his favorite Roman writers. Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, Augustine and Aurelius, they all figured in his pantheon of heroes because they had made language sing in a way that released into the human psyche pollen of an unusually fertile order. These men had introduced a new sense of interiority into the field of men’s converse entirely alien to that of the ancient Greek poets, who were professedly their models. An Epicurean sense of fatality, with its emphasis upon the undifferentiated nature of life and death, made it possible for them to analyze themselves and their motives more deeply than their predecessors. Petrarch was heir to this impulse, so that when he climbed Mount Ventoux he came to realize that the exuberance and sense of power bestowed on him by his rediscovery of the ancients was yet another conceit in the long road towards freedom. The mind, he knew, was the only real bulwark against delusion. Skirting valleys rather than climbing mountains had left him nearer to a state of self-loathing than at any time in his life. Suddenly he was able to see himself as a solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world, even as he stumbled about among the bushes, lost, unable to find a way upward towards the summit. In losing his way Petrarch had found a path towards understanding the greatness of his destiny.

I was beginning to see that mountain climbing was a particular art, that it duplicated the mind’s ascendancy over itself. If Ibn Rushd could be considered a plains thinker for the sake of the argument, in contrast to Petrarch’s ability to climb mountains, this could only be because he saw differences in the barely perceptible, whereas Petrarch was able to observe realities that were distant and largely imperceptible. The philosopher’s mind was made up of deeply felt topographies that made it possible for his contemporaries to grasp reality in all its objectivity. Mount Ventoux and Toubkal might have something in common in that they heightened one’s capacity to see great distances; but this didn’t mean that Marrakech, invariably rose-colored at dusk, was not also the harbinger of thoughts as rarefied as those experienced on these peaks. Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine Platonist, himself alluded to experiencing the same insights as those of Petrarch when he made an excursion to Monte Cellano, near Florence. ‘We seek the highest summits of Mount Olympus,’ he wrote. ‘We inhabit the abyss of the lowest valley. We are weighed down by the burden of a most troublesome body. Panting towards the steep places, we often slide back to a sudden precipice because of this burden itself, and because of the overhanging rocks on both sides. Thus, alas, outside the sublime fatherland, we, unhappy people, are confined to the lowest places, where nothing presents itself which is not exceedingly difficult, where nothing happens that is not lamentable.’ Mountain climbing, it seems, was more an art dedicated to sweeping away illusions than it was an act of conquest.

As I sat there, still short of breath, gazing at the ridges and valleys below, and wondering how far Mahmoud might be ahead of me, I kept thinking about my recent encounter with Dr. Rivierre and his passion for wildflowers. We had passed one another in the night, our faces bathed in candlelight, exchanging thoughts on the psychological effects of mountains. As a doctor, of course, he was well aware of the risks of too rapid an ascent, and also the dangers inherent in being subjected to a lack of oxygen. The mind, and the body, could be starved of necessary nutriment if it allowed itself to become enamored by the hallucinogenic effects that occurred as a consequence. In such a state it became possible to believe that one had become a god, a hero, a philosopher, a demon, even the world, when in reality what was really happening was that one had ceased to exist! Dr. Rivierre, by nature a scientist and therefore ever cautious, recognized the cure for such a disease. It was to seek out the smallest things, things of unique and transient beauty, blossoms that were both genetically ancient yet ever present. He had chosen to restrict his researches to what could be collected and catalogued rather than to the more general delight of speculation on their origins. For him the beauty and grandeur of mountains lay in their natural outgrowths, not in their capacity to influence the mind. In this sense he was more a follower of Averroes than of Plato.

To have faith is to be audacious, so runs the argument. Ibn Rushd understood this just as Petrarch did. They were both committed to an enlargement of their being through investigation and insight. I found this to be a challenging thought as I sat their on a ridge below Mount Toubkal’s summit: that it is man alone, not nature, to which the prescience of ultimate freedom has been granted. It is we who must gather this knowledge, what DR Rivierre loosely called his ‘blooms of the Maghreb’, sufficient unto the final act of breaking our shackles is completed. The eternal archetypes may well be invisible to the eye, but their causal manifestation demonstrated the final integrity of their existence. The good doctor’s wildflower collection, each pressed and elegantly displayed for him to take pleasure in at his leisure, was a realization of what is, as distinct from any fantastic flight of the mind into the world of the ultimate. His collection was thus an act of meditation more than it was a herbarium. Wildflowers offered him what the ancients knew as ‘quintessence,’ the very essence of things, that quality that stood apart from the four elements.

Ibn Rushd was of the opinion, too, that we had been granted a bountiful range of reliable images, the so-called imprint on coins, through which we are able to conduct our business with the world. Their limitation, he argued, was in accordance with their use, not because of any defect pertaining to their realization. In other words, a hammer was made to drive nails into wood rather than to bruise thumbs! He was more than content to wander about valleys, not seeking to elevate himself by climbing mountains, in his bid to identify the lively remnants of existence and their capacity to offer him their gifts.

On a more personal note I had begun to sympathize with Petrarch. I suppose this was only natural, given that I found myself sitting on a mountain track in a state of utter exhaustion. If this was indulging in an act of laziness or prevarication, then I was as guilty as he. But another side of me was more defensive. I realized that Ibn Rushd’s ‘double truth’ was also limited in its applications. Reason and revelation may well work hand in hand; though neither paid tribute to the role and power of the imagination as the true vehicle for creation. It was important sometimes to depart from nature and the empirical truth of things in order to arrive at a more remarkable conclusion: that the soul is the supreme development of the body, the fragile evidence of the pain and pleasure of living. It is incumbent on us to discover the hinge whereby our will meets and moves in accordance with our destiny. In so doing we learn the value and strength of discipline rather than restraint in coming to terms with our nature. This was the lesson for Petrarch on Mount Ventoux – as it was for me on Mount Toubkal.

Suddenly I noticed Mahmoud coming down the path towards me. He was waving his arms. I shook my head, thinking that I had been in some way asleep. My chest was no longer constrained, my breathing less painful. I could feel lightness in my being, as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Who but a mountain- climber is susceptible to this strange disjuncture of the blood? Meanwhile Mahmoud approached, apparently concerned for my well-being. He asked me why I had not followed him, and why was I sitting there as if carved in stone. I found it difficult to answer him, as the reasons for not following him were not altogether evident.

"You are ill, monsieur? You are lost for breath?"

I told him, yes, that lack of air had become a problem.

"It is the bane of climbers, monsieur. It stalks them, this vacuity. I have seen some men collapse from breathlessness. But now," he added, glancing once more at the summit of Mount Toubkal a hundred metres or so up the track. I could see that it was beckoning him. "Now it is time to climb the mountain. You are able, no?"

It was at this point that I recalled the ladies sitting near the tomb of Sidi Chamharouch carding wool, each observing me as I passed by on the way up their mountain. It was, after all - at least to them - a sacred mountain, which made it almost an act of desecration on my part to conquer its summit, to place my boots upon its limit. I realized then that it was impossible for me to continue, that to do so might offend the spirits of the mountain. Reluctantly I informed Mahmoud of my decision. I wanted to turn back now, and so return to the hut. He looked at me with a stricken expression on his face. All the effort to climb this far up the mountain, all that extra hay needed to feed his mule after its long walk – it seemed such a waste.

"Monsieur," he complained. "If I had known that you would refuse to make the final ascent, I would not have accompanied you."

"I’m sorry, Mahmoud. But the mountain doesn’t beckon me any longer. I am ready to descend. To go forward now would mean that I would have conquered Mount Toubkal. I don’t want to do that."

"Ah yes," Mahmoud reasoned. "It is said in the Koran that Moses did not climb to the top of Mount Sinai, either. The prophet turned back within sight of its summit - burdened, they say, with a gift from Allah. He brought down to us what we call the Tablets."

"As all mountain-climbers try to do," I replied, thinking of Ibn Rushd’s monumental text, the Destruction of the Destruction, being carried in a mule’s saddlebag on the long road back home to his beloved Cordova for burial, together with his bones.

"It is written," Mahmoud responded, realizing that our audience with Mount Toubkal was all but over. "When we climb too high on the mountain, often we fall short because of lack of breath."

"And fear," I said, with some relief.

I knew then that this was another way of dealing with the simple process of annihilation. A part of me, I now realized, had accepted its responsibility not to conquer, but to submit. In so doing it had allowed the ‘sublime father’, as Ficino called his mountain, to remain forever the master.