New Internationalist

Compassion and conscience

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How are aphorisms different from proverbs or maxims? To my mind an aphorism can be a maxim if it is wise, universal and intended for instruction. Aphorisms try and breathe new life into an old truth. An aphorism is a proverb with a name tag (proverbs tend to be nameless).

Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. Wit was sport, and a kind of national pastime, at the time of my youth. Never mind that over 50 percent of the population was actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. ‘Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks’ an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).

Which is to say, proverbs served as street poetry as well as philosophy. They were oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insight from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observation. Proverbs are like coral reef, that way, fossils of philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this, too.



We are responsible for our enemy. Compassion is to consider the role we play in their creation.

Paradox: where truth hides in plain view.

Revolutions are about overthrowing the tyranny of old fears – dictators are merely stubborn symbols of these.

You can't bury pain and not expect it to grow roots.

History teaches us, and world news reports confirm, that not all deaths are equal; there is an exchange rate for human lives, as well.

The right to free speech ends where hate speech begins.

Pity that, in the majority of alien movies, they are here to invade and destroy our planet. Perhaps, when we can conceive of more peaceful, curious, generous strangers, we will be less prone to invade and destroy other countries.

In wars, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is another name for conscience.

These aphorisms come from Yahia's upcoming collection entitled 'Speaking in Sayings'. His first collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press) was selected as a 2008 ‘Book of the Year’ by The Independent, in the UK.

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