Les élus

Am I #CharlieHebdo? No. But I hate the terrorists as much as you do!

It’s a complicated affair. And indeed, there are many ways of looking at the ‪#‎CharlieHebdo‬ massacre – and none of these ways excuse the act. The attack against its staff is ugly and heinous. Should have never happened. The terrorists will burn in hell, most probably … If there’s one.

Now that I’ve got this point out of the way, let’s just be clear that the #CharlieHebdo Islam cartoons are indeed tasteless, their brand of satire hateful; they’re as much ‘free speech’ as the venomous sermons of the Muslims sheikhs who call for the death of infidels and warn Muslims against being friendly to others but their in-group.

Two sides of the same friggin’ coin.

And that’s coming from a non-practicing Muslim who didn’t flinch or bat an eyelid at the Danish cartoon saga – in fact, those only left me angry with my own people (if I may say so of the 1-billion-plus Muslims across the world), of how rashly and violently they reacted.

Bottom line, I believe Charlie Hebdo’s house style sucks balls, their cartoons verge on being incendiary – and perhaps they should be held liable for promoting a form of hate speech through their stacks of anti-Islam cartoons, but that’s up to media watchdogs, critics, commentators, even courts if you will, to decide.

Our sentiments as Muslims don’t set the rules here, rightfully so, and we’re not judges, and we shouldn’t be.

How the radicals among us reacted is unforgivable, ugly, criminal and shameful – and it’s symptomatic of deeper flaws in Islam and Muslims. NOTHING justifies their actions. Nothing.

So, fellow Muslims – and I mean this lovingly – shove your offence up yours if it means you’ll act with such blind wrath.

And keep your sob stories to yourself while you’re at it.

My sentiments are not in conflict, mind you. I don’t have to like what the cartoonists produce in order to respect their right to life and free speech, even if that speech may offend me or others … and yes, fellow Muslims, we have to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around us and that it shouldn’t bow to our whims.

One final thing: it’s not just the terrorists that need to be punished for this; just take a look at the comments sections across Arabic newspapers, or scan reactions across social media, see how many Muslims justify this terrible act, and you’ll realize that many, many of these must be disciplined somehow, reprimanded or raged against. You’ll see how many Muslims are lost. That many others harbor a false sense of superiority that will destroy us all if it’s left unchecked.

And yes, we should police each other; scathingly lash against any sign of intolerant, self-serving or aggressive rhetoric at our end. The Muslim “umma” must understand it’s deeply flawed, down to the core, that it too is responsible for the leanings of its loud, violent minority … no matter where these Muslims live or what language they speak. What’s the point of an “umma” then and all that cheap talk about being one and united under the umbrella of Islam and its sub-culture if we aren’t going to be involved when and where it matters?

Or are we only one when it comes to agreeing “hijab is fard,” or that Gaza should be saved, or that “children should be taught to pray at the age of 7,” but many and different and separate when there’s a collective responsibility to shoulder, and a need to reign in the misguided among our ranks?

We’re either in this together or we stop bullshiting each other about this “umma” notion.

The Muslim “umma” needs to divorce itself from obsolete ideas, need to know that the world owes it nothing, that we’re reaping what we sow and that no, we’re not entitled to respect, or tolerance, or any of those nice and pretty things. Not until we go into rehab and acknowledge our failings. Open our eyes to how much we broke this world we’re currently living in. Not until some of us stop scaring, manipulating or crying their way into forcing people to tolerate them. Or worse, fear them, which is our reality now.

Few people respect us, most just fear our darkness.

That’s not a place I wanna be. And I think some of you might feel the same.

And sure you can make all the shitty excuses in the world so you can sleep better at night or play the victim for one more year or until the next atrocity takes place; “the terrorists don’t represent us,” “it’s all politics,” “they started it.”

Yeah, right.

Beneath all these childish excuses and if you have a sound heart, you must realise that this transcends politics and religious squabbles. That no, the world will not coddle or baby us because we’re in denial and pulling a tantrum (a tantrum that literally costs lives). That no one hurts the “Muslim cause” (whatever that is) more than Muslims. That when all is said and done, there’s still the fact that something is wrong with us. This “umma.” You and me.

Here’s what this post is inspired by.

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Fluff

Don’t date a girl who travels

“She’s the one with the messy unkempt hair colored by the sun. Her skin is now far from fair like it once was. Not even sun kissed. It’s burnt with multiple tan lines, wounds and bites here and there. But for every flaw on her skin, she has an interesting story to tell.

Don’t date a girl who travels. She is hard to please. The usual dinner-movie date at the mall will suck the life out of her. Her soul craves for new experiences and adventures. She will be unimpressed with your new car and your expensive watch. She would rather climb a rock or jump out of an airplane than hear you brag about it.” – Read more at the source

Fluff

Geek trumps ‘normal’

Being a geek is not just about consuming entertainment, but education and drive.

For instance, the literature I read around Lord of the Rings during the few years I was crazy about it was eye-opening, Middle Earth gave me a burning interest in hiking and maps. The Little Prince made me fall in love with the western desert, and fennec foxes; helped me appreciate heartbreak and loneliness, if that makes any sense at all. Neil Gaiman transformed the idea of “storytelling” into living, breathing characters, set in ridiculous, dreamy worlds, and it helped me appreciate the power of stories, making me want to tell my own. El Mariachi and Once Upon A Time in Mexico, sent me on a small quest to learn more about movie making, reading here and there, and even taking courses in filmmaking myself, which in turn made me fall in love with film art even more. X-Files, Lois Lane of Superman and Moshira Mahfouz of Malaf Al-Mustaqbal played a part in my choice to pursue investigative journalism. Karate Kid, and Batman Begins, and anime, encouraged me to dive head first into the Shaolin adventure, despite how eccentric it seemed to everyone around me. Harry Potter nerd-years introduced me to a great deal of literature and lore on magic, and the occult (not exactly in relation to HP, and that’s the beauty of it. It makes you go out and research other things, similar things).

And now being obsessed with Supernatural, and favorite character Dean Winchester, I’m re-discovering classic rock, and falling in love with muscle cars, and reading more about those.

Supernatural art
Supernatural art

Sure, I’ll never actually be Batman, I don’t have the money (or the batcave) to back that up. But Catwoman is not rich. And many superheroes are journalists, who have to make ends meet by working day jobs and so spend most of their time asking questions and conducting research anyway. Superman anyone? Spiderman? Both work at newspapers. (And mind you, Batman and Flash dated reporters before). So there, perhaps I’m not so far off.

I often find myself thinking of situations from the perspective of my favorite characters, just to get a fresh angle and feel less pressured. When the going gets rough, sometimes I say to myself “what would Starbuck [BSG] do?” or “what would Dean do?,” and it helps. You find a degree of courage, borrowed from a fictional character, but practically very real.

When I’m alone and afraid sometimes, I remind myself of cat lore, I relax and know that my cats will protect me, and that my large Gandalf action figure will not let anything evil pass. Its powers are derived from my own faith in it. And yes, it does make me sleep better at night knowing that despite the very disturbing notion that Stephen King’s Pennywise “It” the dancing clown could be out there, here or in a parallel universe, that if he is, he’s still a shapeshifter that I can end with a stab of solid silver or a whif from my asmtha spray inhaler if I stand up and be brave about it. When I feel misunderstood or outnumbered, it’s reassuring to know that my gold-haired friend, the prince from Asteroid B6-12 whose life revolves around three volcanoes, the drawing of a sheep and a flower (that is at once unique, and common), probably gets how I feel.

The world becomes less daunting.

A geek’s mind is an interesting mind, and the stories are like sacred texts for the religious. It’s not just about entertainment, but faith. A la Life of Pi, ours is the better story (it being fictional is irrelevant).

There are so many things that I read about, learned about that are outside my general interests and even my comfort zone thanks to a measure of geekery, and excitement about fantasy, sci-fiction worlds, and being part of cults around films or TV shows, etc. The charm of books, comics and movies extend beyond the last page and the end credits into the real world. And that’s when most of the fun happens.

A fascination with these worlds have sent me tumbling into new territories, got me talking to different kinds of people all over, meeting kindred spirits — experiences I’m eternally grateful for.

And yes, I get made fun of for being a “bit over the top” by my more moderate “balanced” friends who act their age (which I don’t even know what it means), and there are always snide remarks about how “when Pakinam gets into something, she goes crazy” … like it’s an illness (and maybe it is, some sort of a bug). My new goals in life range from wanting to teach myself car mechanics to learning Latin and finally attending Comic Con in New York (and I know it should be something more like, “settling down” as a married friend recently reminded me, “You’re not going to stay young forever. Don’t you want to have your own family?” Sure, I do. But, but–how does being passionate about things contradict that? I mean sure, to many all-Egyptian 30-something guys I sound a little crazy, messy even, perhaps “not marriage material” but, erm, *sigh*–anyway). Sometimes the friendly sneers can get annoying.

But truth be told, I wouldn’t give any of that up for anything. And being crazy, and having a family one day and “acting my age,” are not mutually exclusive.

And sure, I’m a nerd. But no one so far has successfully curbed my enthusiasm by exclaiming distastefully that “I get into things a bit too much” or by reminding me I’m not 15. So maybe try another tactic, friend? In fact, I’m starting to think it’s a gift that I can manage to do that afterall. That being a girl, living on this side of the planet, in the Arab world, during times of conflict, in this monotone culture, and at this age, I can still get super excited about Sandman or the new Star Wars movie in the making like I’m 12.

Yeah, sure, it’d be interesting to be less weird, or come back to Earth from time to time. But hey, a lot of people do that anyway. I’m sure one less soul, whose head is in the clouds, won’t hurt the statistics. And I guess no one would really get the appeal of living in other worlds, and not just in the head, unless they tried it.

So there, thank you, nerd/geek culture, for making me less boring.

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Star Wars Scripture

Fluff

Meditations: Lennon, Guevara, Socrates

If we look at religions as mythical stories, or at least made-up stories meant to awe and inspire on the journey to understanding man himself, purpose and the Universe around us …

… then the story of Jesus appeals to the most romantic, emotional among the seekers. Those who gravitate towards it are like the hippies of the believers crowd if you will. Love and peace y’all … #Lennon

… the story of Muhammed appeals to the underdogs and the idealists, those seeking revolution and community. Justice, equality, fraternity, etc. They’re the communists of the believers in a manner of speaking. All for one, one for all … #Guevara

… the story of Buddha, however, is for the intellectuals. Those who have seen the world, and found nothing but emptiness, so they turned inwards. They’re on top of Maslow’s pyramid. Detached, slightly, and wanting answers to the big questions (it’s usually for those who don’t have to worry about putting food on the table, or maneuvering daily hassles). They’re the big thinkers. Why are we here? Who made the world? … #Socrates

Into the Trenches

That Black Wednesday [Notes from the 18 days of Tahrir]

Tahrir looked like a battlefield. Men on horseback and camels with whips and swords, later labeled by media and activists as “state-sponsored thugs,” charged at an unarmed crowd. It was as brutal as it was “medieval,” and its aggressiveness was in direct proportion to its surreality — at least for those who were caught up in the violent fighting that ensued that afternoon.

Egypt's Battle of the Camel
Egypt’s Battle of the Camel

The events of February 2, what protesters came to call Black Wednesday, came less than 24 hours after then-President Hosni Mubarak’s emotionally charged speech in which he conceded to some of the Tahrir demands. Just before midnight on February 1, Mubarak, in an almost imploring tone, called upon Egyptians to remember his “accomplishments” and the fact that he was a celebrated war veteran, and promised reforms in addition to not running another term. He would stay in his post until the autumn elections, however, to oversee the reforms.

Many sympathized and a rift opened in public opinion on whether or not protesters should stay in the square.

That Tuesday night, rather ominous signs of the split could be felt in the square. People listened to Mubarak’s speech before midnight and a certain uneasiness followed. Numbers dwindled. Some left the square convinced that they should come back, while others were plagued with a sense of uncertainty about whether to be patient for another six months. To sit in Tahrir or not to sit was the question —the confusion there was echoed in households across Egypt.

Ayman Mohyideen, Al Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief and lead correspondent, said that he had noticed a “different attitude” on the square as he was leaving on Tuesday night, following the president’s speech. “Just the atmosphere. The rumors started to circulate that pro-Mubarak supporters were going to come to Liberation Square,” he said. “Even the military took a different posture. They became a little bit on the defense. You [could] feel it in the air.”

That night, Egypt Today spoke to people who said they were tipped off by relatives in the police force that the scene would get violent and that “thugs” would start heading to Tahrir after midnight. Mohyideen himself left the square after hearing from protesters and fellow journalists that there were “troublemakers” out looking for him by name; the next day, after the violence broke out, people came to his hotel, chanting against Al Jazeera.

As Mohyideen and his TV crew were walking out of the square from the eastern exit, near the Egyptian Museum, they saw “like a hundred people on motorcycles, pro-Mubarak supporters with sticks, coming down and circling around, in a mob style atmosphere, chanting ‘He won’t leave.’”

“They were all young men, all on motorcycles, with flags, with pictures of Mubarak and sticks,” Mohyideen says. “It became very suspicious. It was a kind of coordinated and orchestrated mob reaction, which I’ve seen in elections. It had all the hallmarks of some kind of concentrated effort by these people.”

Similar mobs were seen in neighborhoods near Tahrir, marching toward the square. Nour Ayman, a protester in his early twenties, says that the sight was concerning, but not realizing how events would unfold he put his faith in the army, which remained neutral for the most part.

“I thought to myself, the army wouldn’t let anything bad happen to the [pro-democracy] protesters. They would never allow a confrontation,” says Ayman, who was on the front line near barricades by the Egyptian Museum. That view changed when he “saw the guy who threw the first blow at protesters.”

As Ayman remembers it, a mixed group of citizens — women and men, from upper and lower socioeconomic classes — were approaching and rowdily protesting in support of Mubarak, when suddenly a man from the back of the crowd started throwing “random objects” at the pro-democracy demonstrators. “Batons, sticks, pieces of plastic, things that are not lethal flew at us,” Ayman says. “Those who looked like they’re from the educated middle-class among the pro-Mubarak crowd left the scene and those who looked more aggressive, more like thugs, stayed.”

The chain of events progressed fast and random scuffles turned into violent face-offs that resulted in bloodshed. Flocks of “pro-Mubarak supporters” started seeping into the square from all directions. “We were surrounded, exits were cordoned off,” Ayman says, “and we had no choice but to defend ourselves.”

Ayman, though, says he refused to even throw one stone at his opponents, his own people. “These were not executive forces loyal to the regime. These were fellow Egyptians, armed, trying to kill us. It’s easier to declare a war against uniformed policemen, but not civilians like yourself. In retrospect, it was naive of me, but I didn’t even feel like lashing back to defend myself.”

Buildings in Tahrir were closed off to non-residents and the protesters — who were unarmed according to reports from journalists and others in the square — were hemmed in.

Ayman denies that Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Tahrir demonstrators were responsible for any violence, as some media reported. He was there, he says, so he saw it all.
“They were just like us, surprised but ready to defend their ground to the death. Some were calling out that the ‘road to heaven and martyrdom is the frontline’ when the violence was at its peak, and people were falling to the ground, dead or injured. But that’s natural,” he says. “When all else fails you, you seek faith in God. I’m not particularly religious, but I was affected in a similar way. When death seems so close, there’s nothing but religion to turn to.”

In a voice tinged with a touch of bitterness, Ayman remembers how “it was all catastrophic in its unfairness. Tahrir was defenseless.”

But if anything, according to eyewitnesses and journalists covering the events of that Wednesday, the ‘Battle for Tahrir’ brought about a shift in perspective. Many who were willing to be patient while Mubarak finished the last six months of his term lost any trust they might have had in the regime after seeing TV footage of friends and fellow Egyptians being pelted with stones, stabbed and whipped, and after hearing the claims that the pro-Mubarak attackers were paid and organized by regime supporters.

On television, Tahrir protesters displayed ID cards they claimed were confiscated from captured attackers, saying these proved the thugs were policemen in plain clothes.
The new government has been receiving complaints and requests to probe into the incident. On February 22, it appointed a fact-finding committee to investigate the events of Black Wednesday and other incidents of violence throughout the revolution.
Social aid efforts intensified and people seemed more eager than ever to help those sitting on the square. This reporter personally observed an increase in blankets, medical aid and food sent to the square over the following days.

“But of course at the time, we didn’t know if we had any legitimacy,” Ayman recalls, and we were hurt by our friends who thought we should have left the square a night earlier.”

After Al Jazeera’s Mohyideen left the square, the TV news channel dispatched correspondent Shereen Tadros to the scene. Like Mohyideen, she was surprised by the demeanor of the pro-Mubarak crowd.

“There was something about them, like they were entranced,” Tadros recalls. “It didn’t look sporadic. People were prodding each other [to urge each other] to shout.”

When Tadros arrived early Wednesday morning, the scene was already tense. Pro-Mubarak demonstrators “who looked aggressive and angry” chanted and waved signs that read “He won’t leave. You should leave,” at the edges of Tahrir, while pro-democracy demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a human barrier across the streets feeding into the square. A few hours later, in the early afternoon, rocks were flying across the square from all directions. She says the mood shifted as panic took over and as people dispersed into side streets trying to escape: “I could see people fall into a disgusting stampede.”

Tadros was forced to seek shelter in a family’s apartment on one of those side streets, after the scene got too bloody and the phone networks too congested for her to call in live reports to the news channel.

On that side street, she shared the horror felt by the area’s residents, as she watched the “thugs” loitering near doors, instigating violence, regrouping and building defenses.

Tadros says that before the family took her in, she herself had a threatening brush with pro-Mubarak protesters who seemed ready for a fight after one recognized her as an Al Jazeera journalist.

She spent the night wide-awake on her hosts’ balcony. After midnight, supporters of Mubarak started to come to the door. Tadros recalls that they would ask her hosts to use their balcony “to defend ourselves and throw Molotov cocktails.” They were “very organized and highly aggressive,” and they spent the night “strategizing. They knew what they were doing.”

When the sun rose, there were still clashes on the square, sounds of which Tadros had been listening to as she gave phone reports to her employers all through the night. With a haunted look, she says that “there was no way anyone could have slept through this.” She could hear the “shrieks and screaming” from where she was posted. “I was literally listening to people dying. Honestly, it was heartbreaking.”

I wrote this for Egypt Today magazine in March 2011, it was originally published there.

Les élus

My ‘ruddy mysterious’ experiments

Latest ruddy mystery: Promoting smoking while rubbishing it
Latest ruddy mystery: Promoting smoking while rubbishing it

I have launched an inspired personal project, mainly out of boredom, and started publishing my finds on a pinterest board.

The ‘ruddy mysterious’ experiments (phrase partly inspired by an episode of the British comedy The IT Crowd) feature yours truly doing different, highly irrelevant things: Like applying home-made glitter nail polish, dying my hair blue, smoking for the camera then artfully doctoring the shots, posing with a sword or staff, or going to the desert dressed in a cocktail dress.

The purpose of the experiments is pure, unadulterated entertainment.

In other equally unimportant news, I have opened up my new Facebook profile for followers.

Another one where I decided to go blue, at least in small bits.
Another one where I decided to go blue, at least in small bits.
Moi times four
Moi times four
Changing my Twitter art then changing it again. #ExcitingTimes
Changing my Twitter art then changing it again. #ExcitingTimes
Then of course going back to mourning my Twitter look is part of the experimental process
Then regretting that and mourning my old Twitter look. #Help
Only to repeat the process on Facebook.
Only to repeat the process on Facebook.
Books That Inspire, Into the Trenches

Dark As Watchmaker

This blog post, a couple of years old, is a tribute to Alan Moore’s genius story-telling technique in the graphic novel, The Watchmen, and its contemplation of  fate, lost time, perception, and the question of who makes the world.

It’s all written in the present tense, mainly because time, past, present and future, run parallel to each other as they do in one of the character’s head, Dr Manhattan’s, so ‘tense’ becomes obsolete. What was is still is and still will be.

The post was previously password-protected but now I’m ready to publish it.

——————————–
dr

The cell phone is in my hand.

It’s ringing, he’s calling me, I’m in Beirut, it’s a cold evening in early February 2010.

In twelve seconds time, I answer the phone. I already picked up twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now.

The phone is in my hand.

I rediscovered this memory a night earlier, eyes landing on my phone as it lay quietly on the desk, while I was sitting in bed, having trouble sleeping, staring at a glaring laptop screen, sixteen hours ago.

It’s still there, sixteen hours into the past, on the desk, in my room. I’m still there looking at it.

The phone is in my hand. His name, followed by the word “Sweetheart”, appears on the screen, it’s ringing. Seven seconds now.

It’s 14 June 2010, I’m in Cairo. It’s February 2010, I’m in Beirut. Four seconds. Three. I’m tired of looking at his name as the phone rings. I press the “Yes” button to take the call. The memory fades.

I’m now looking at his photograph, the one taken in Siwa, beneath the stars. The stars are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us. All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.

I’m two hundred and twenty-seven million kilometers from the sun. Its light is already ten minutes old. It will not reach Pluto for another two hours. Two hours into my future, I’m watching a movie with friends, thinking about my lost dreams and tomorrow’s work deadline. Twelve seconds into my past, I’m looking at his photograph, taken beneath the stars.

My father didn’t repair watches. No one in my family did. If anyone had done, we would perhaps appreciate precision, found in clockwork, in the sky. In the year 2000, I sit in the American University in Cairo’s library, fascinated by a psychology book I’m reading. I’m 19 years old.

It is 2010. I’m in my house. I’m 29 years old.

His photograph is in my hand, he sits beneath the stars. He liked watching the stars admiring their complex trajectories, through space, through time.

As if he was trying to give a name to the force that set them in motion

It’s the fall of 2000, it’s cold in the library, and I’m holding a book, “Theories of Personality”, a classmate stops to say hello. A conversation ensues, and he sits down. He complains about English class, then asks for help in brainstorming for his next essay. I offer help but we end up talking, not about his essay, but religion, martial arts, horseback riding, my dream of flying planes on my own and his philosophy of life. I note his dark skin, his ripped arms bronze and glowing, his eyes dark brown. Two months after that encounter, I start falling in love with him. Two months before I fall in love, it starts raining in downtown, on the American University in Cairo, I can see the raindrops through the library glass as I talk to him. Ten years ago.

One hundred and fifteen minutes into the future, the sun starts setting and it’s still scorching hot. In 2010 I’m at Guildhall in London throwing my cap in the air, celebrating my graduation. Anna’s father flashes his camera to capture the moment. In 2000, I’m at the American University in Cairo, in the library.

The rain is falling.

dr3

I’m 28 years old. It’s October 2009. I sit with him talking, about religion, atheism, God, the desert, dentists, Lord of the Rings, Communism, British comedies and the joys of living in Europe. My head is crowded with things to say. The conversation flows like a river, fascinating me one drop at a time. There’s a sudden sensation of Deja Vu: I’ve had this conversation before … except that I was innocent back then, and there was rain pouring on the glass windows of the library, in downtown AUC. The illusion vanishes, almost before it has registered.

It’s February 2010, we buy a Fairouz CD and as we reach for the CD player our fingers touch. It’s January 2010, and I’m sleeping as he’s driving around with his car around Maadi. He didn’t want to wake me up, he says I looked so peaceful as I slept. He says he was happy watching me sleep.

It’s March 2010, he’s holding my hands tightly, consoling me, after an argument, our tenderness in direct proportion to its violence. It’s late January 2010, we’re in the desert, he’s climbing a mountain, higher and higher up and I couldn’t follow; I was too afraid. I wish I did. It’s June 2010, I’m tearful as I write him an email saying it’s over, that even our friendship cannot be saved. I’m thinking perhaps I will find no one as good, or perhaps I’ll die of heartbreak.

Two years later I genuinely wonder why he ever caught my attention in the first place. And why the love was gone.

It’s December 2010, I’m swearing I’m not the same person he loved and lost a few years back. I’m promising him, “I’m a different person now. I’ve changed. And I will never cut you off again.” It’s May 2010, a Saturday, my phone is ringing and I’m not answering his calls.

It’s February 2010, he’s telling me of big plans that may make him travel for months and I worry because life will be hard without him. Again. It’s March 2010, and I’m sobbing on the phone as I tell him I’m lonely even when he’s around, that he doesn’t know how to make me happy. It’s January 2010, and I joked that if he leaves, “I’ll just cry my eyes out continuously for a couple of months, then die of depression a few years later.”

He laughs. And as he does, I can hear him shouting at me in April 2010, pressing his foot on the accelerator as he drove, threatening, “you want to go home and end it now? Fine. I’ll take you home. And it’s over” as I weep. In February 2010, I confess to him that I love him.

Again

It’s 2000, and it’s the first time we tell each other we have feelings, confess that we’re more than just friends. Our fingers interlock. Three years later he marries another woman, and smiles beautifully for the wedding pictures as he holds her hands. In 2000, he told me we will live on his farm together, forever. In 2003, I kissed his forehead, during his wedding party, smiled big and told him, “Don’t worry. I have moved on too.” Forget me, I said then walked away.

In 2006, I still hadn’t moved on. 2007. 2008. 2009.

Ten.

It’s 14 June 2010.

My fingers are frozen.

His photograph, in Siwa, taken beneath the stars, is in my hands.

And I was gone. Gone back to my lonely world. Gone to the desert. Gone to a place without clocks, without seasons, without hour glasses, to trap the shifting golden sands. Below me, in the sand, the secret shape of my creation is concealed, buried in the sand’s future. My mind rises into thin air.

A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand?

In 2000, love was blossoming in my heart for the first time, the rain was falling on downtown carelessly … In 2010, I’m looking at his photograph, in Siwa, taken beneath the stars, wishing we could be friends again.

Or that we’d never met.

dr2

Without me, things would have been different. If I hadn’t told him about my psychology book “Theories of Personality” and asked him to elaborate more on his dream of setting up a farm, if I hadn’t randomly asked him if he wanted to borrow my filmmaking books on Twitter 10 years later.

Am I to blame then? Or him? Or the Psychology Book, “Theories of Personality”? Or Twitter for brining us together?

Which of us is responsible?

Who makes the world?

Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there. I’m sitting at my computer, typing, as a glass of milk rests on the desk nearby.

The light of two hours past will just be reaching Pluto

If they have strong telescopes there, they can see me. The photograph, taken beneath the stars, in Siwa, in my hand.

It’s February 2010, I’m standing in a hotel room in Beirut, answering the phone, but I let it ring for too long, he has hung up, I have no credit to call him back. I want to hear his voice. But it’s too late, always has been, always will be too late.

Above the Gilf El Kebir, jewels in a makerless mechanism, the first stars are starting to fall.

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Listening to: No Cars Go, Maxence Cyrin,
and parts of the The Fountain soundtrack
and Society, Eddie Vedder
and Une Chanson pour tout dire, Eli et Pappilon
and Time after Time, Eva Cassidy
Mood:  indifferent, a little nostalgic, calm 

**Note: This is inspired by the graphic novel The Watchmen, and takes many of its words from Chapter IV titled Watchmaker, where Dr Manhattan meditates on time, and memory. Some of those lines are copied word by word from the book. Some are made up or altered to fit my story. It’s a tribute to Alain Moore’s genius story-telling techniques and to Watchmen’s contemplation of fate, lost time, and the question of “who makes the world?” And what makes things as they are. It is all written in the present tense, mainly because time, past, present and future, run parallel to each other in Dr Manhattan’s head, so tense is obsolete. What was is still is and still will be. Moore jumps between years in the telling, and in my case, I’m jumping back and forth between months and years, so I go from February to March, back to January again, jumping next to May, on and so forth. I hope it’s not confusing to the reader (and perhaps it should be confusing … as time is, as memories are). Hope you enjoyed it! Beware of one thing though, Dr Manhattan writes this as he sits on Mars, not Earth, so the time calculations of how many hours it takes for light of sun to reach us, and all that, reflects his position in space not mine.

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Buffers

The wheezing, rickety Mubarak machine

Living history: The 18 days and beyond
Living history: The 18 days and beyond

The fact that ikhwan are fascist c**** doesn’t mean that I would ever forget how bad and miserable Mubarak days were, how his politics broke me and killed the dreams of many people, and scared the shit out of others.

If you were happy or OK during Mubarak days, rejoice, you must have been one of those 1% who could survive in this country without losing their heads. Maybe you are rich or connected, or both, or neither but you definitely had something most of this country’s people didn’t have. Not everyone was as lucky. Definitely not those who begged for food, or lived on the streets across country, or were stripped of proper education, or basic human rights, or were killed in train accidents, or flogged in protests or drowned when their overcrowded fishing boats capsized on the way to Greece, or Cyprus in a dangrous and desperate attempt to find a better life elsewhere. Definitely you were not close to one of those who died in bread queues riots or fought bloody battles for butane gas cylinders to heat their food. Or knew someone who perished in a dirty hospital due to negligence, or tried to endure as a loved one rotted in Mubarak’s prisons for angering the powers that be.

The mess that we are in today was primarily created under Mubarak’s rule, Mohamed Hosni Mubarak. Oh yes. That guy whose powers were God-like, and whose cronies and family were untouchable. The one living in an ivory tower while our phones were taped, our reporters controlled or harassed, and our poor were stepped over if they stood in the way of the economy sharks, or whose freedom was bought in pennies in voting seasons.

If you’re OK with these sorts of draconian powers, the past era’s injustice, lack of freedoms, and enslaving the public under the guise of “stability, control of the masses”, fine, go ahead, praise his days all you want, reminisce out loud but I don’t want to be in earshot. I won’t allow it.

Islamists wouldn’t have ruled us today if we were an aware, educated, and self-respecting people (not hungry and barely able to make ends meet, ignorant and gullible as we are thanks to Mubarak and his well-groomed albeit sleazy party members). People are easily led, or misled, when they’re desperate or raging or both. If you can’t understand this, I honestly won’t waste my breath on you to make you get it. You either get this or you don’t.

Anger at this stage is understandable, being disenchanted with the country is a reality we all face, even saying Mubarak wasn’t as bad as ikhwan or Morsi is still perfectly acceptable considering the status quo, but to go beyond this and glorify Mubarak and his thieves, blame revolutionaries entirely, or fiercely denounce/curse/insult supporters of the January 25 revolution is unacceptable, and I won’t allow it to happen around me, virtually and in real life.

If you don’t care about losing me as a friend, fair enough, do what you will. That’s also understandable; I’m high maintenance and I can be annoying, granted.

But if you do, then please respect that there are people who invested in the January 25 revolution, emotionally, physically, mentally, with money, effort, etc and who had very high hopes and were there to enact a real change that was far from poetic, for us (those who took part in the revolt) it was a reality and a breath of fresh air. In fact the only time I felt I belonged to this country was during the 18 days. I didn’t plan it, when I went down on January 25, I was a mere observer and I was cynical as the next person. But something inside me changed that night, on the 25th.

And from then on, I ceased to care about anything except wanting to be there. There was an awakening and I felt it rock me inside out. I was ready to lose my job, go into endless arguments with family and friends to be able to be there, to risk my own safety even. In Tahrir, I found that “inch” that made me the person who I am. I finally recognized myself, and found something to live for, and I wanted to live on to see it happen.

If you haven’t been there, and felt it like I did, you may never understand the root of my anger at those who curse at the revolutionaries now and accuse those who supported the January 25 movement of “ruining the country.”

There wasn’t a roadmap for success, or “Revolution for Dummies” or one of those “101 ways to remove a dictator” guides to tell us what to do. We improvised. We put our lives in danger. If this had not succeeded, we’d be all behind bars. Or assaulted. Or shot. Or raped. But we risked that. Not for fun. But for a dream. Our leaders failed us, some conspired behind our backs, and for many the blood of those who fell was cheap.

Perhaps that “revolt” was more wishful than tactical. More dreamy than political. I can admit to that.

Did the revolutionaries make mistakes? Absolutely. Are they flawed? Yes. Were most of them doing their best, according to what they knew best, in an attempt to make this country a better place? I have no doubt. And if you were there, during the 18 days, you would’ve understood.

Did I condemn those who stayed at home at the time? Never. Go back to my notes from the 18 days. I plainly and clearly asked people, among “my ranks” (for lack of a better word) not to interfere, I said truth isn’t and wasn’t exclusive to the Tahrir people, it wasn’t here or there and to each his cause and battle, I said. So let’s fight ours.

And no, there was no obligation from our side to listen to those who bitched and moaned about the dangers of removing Mubarak, to those who are now known as “felool.”

If you or the “felool” couldn’t see the signs, if you couldn’t tell that this country was going down the drain ANYWAY, regardless of the revolt or if you didn’t foresee that a big change was imminent, then again, it’s not my fault or the fault of the revolutionaries that you couldn’t see it.

You thought you had foresight. You believed it. Well, if you had your way, we don’t know where we would’ve been today. And no one can tell for certain. We had a different vision (concerning Mubarak’s stay in power) and it was just as dark and gloomy as the scenario we’re experiencing now. And we are entitled to our forecasts as you are. We acted, you acted. And there’s no way to tell –despite what’s happening today– which decision would have saved us, or propelled us into ruin.

Maybe this route will save us, after all, if we don’t give up.

Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, are here. They’re fascists. To me, they’re also an extension of Mubarak’s disastrous rule. They’re corrupt to the bone. But so what? We will fight them and the remnants of the past corruption with all our might. As one of my favorite TV characters once said, “we will do what we have always done. We will fight them until we can’t.”

I’m actually glad they’re fully exposed. So that no one would come later and claim that the Islamists weren’t given a chance. If we succeed in climbing out of this rut, and I believe we will, we will definitely come out wiser … and more educated about the choices we make.

If you want to continue whining and pulling your hair, if you enjoy playing the victim (or don’t know better than that), or if you can’t control your fear of the present and future, be it real or exaggerated, please do step aside while we (those who still have some fight left in us) continue to battle the “bad guys” (in all their forms) while we fix the country or ourselves or either or both.

I hope this is clear for friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. No one is immune to this new campaign of mine; of removing from my life those who constantly lament Mubarak and relentlessly attack the revolution of 2011 in long, repeated loops. Sorry. I really, really am sad things are coming down to that.

But between friends and certain ideas I side with and can’t do without, I’ll have to choose the ideas. And perhaps regret the friendships lost later. I’d rather regret those than to give in to despair or accept assaults on ideas and ideals that I find liberating and transcendent.

Les élus

Cheap, plastic, tacky constants

When I was in Shaolin China, in a temple town in Henan province, I always felt it was like a dream simply because everything was different. There was no one I knew, my decision to go there was sporadic so I went with little research, there was nothing that I related to at first or recognized. You name it: language, culture, how people looked and dressed, even going to town for a visit to the supermarket was an exercise in cultural shock.

I was too afraid at the beginning. I travelled alone, no guides, and no Chinese language skills. No one spoke English in this part of China, it was very far from the ‘civilized world’ as we know it. For the first few days, I couldn’t stomach the food and I lived on steamed rice and water. I didn’t understand when people spoke about me around me, or when they spoke to me. I felt threatened if I walked a bit too far from my school, fearing I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. Even having a phone was useless; because there was no one I could call in China in an emergency. My first Kung Fu Shifu spoke little English, and I had to use sign language a lot and gesticulate dramatically to get small things across. Even the silence at night on Kung Fu camp used to scare me. On my first day in the Kung Fu school, I woke up thinking it’s a mistake, after I went to bed crying the night before and shaking under the covers. What the hell did I do? I thought. How did I ever think this was a good idea. “I’ll book my flight back to Egypt next week,” I said to myself, “or as early as I can. Until then, I’ll hide in my room.”

Then the change happened, I fell in love with the place, started liking Kung Fu training, got used to every single aspect of the strangeness and moved from scared alien to lover. To the point where the phrase “Made in China,” now printed on almost every single merchandise in the world thanks to a tigerish economy, became an endearing thing, and a bag of memories.

However, the feeling that Egypt is so far away, almost like a fantasy land, never went away. I was in Middle Earth. And Egypt is some mad version of a post-apocalyptic futuristic movie. If not for discovering VPN three months into my stay and getting re-connected to familiar “avatars” and “status updates” on Facebook and Twitter, I would’ve been mentally stranded in this bubble or would’ve sworn Egypt and its worries existed only in my imagination, and that things like Starbucks, fancy restaurants, “City Stars,” and even McDonalds are mere hallucinations; the Matrix that I can’t see for what it used to be anymore.

Surviving without familiars can confuse you at first. It reminds me with this fictional character in Lost, the Sci-fi TV series, I think he was a Scott, who needed some sort of a “constant” as he traveled back and forth between time. I remember his lover was called Penny, and she was his constant.

Now, when I came back to Egypt, I felt the opposite of that. It was time for the reverse shock. Mind you, I spent over a year in Europe, and despite finding some difficulty adapting at first when I moved back to Cairo, it’s nothing, nothing compared to a change from a secluded martial arts boarding school in the Asian mountains to a big bustling city in the Middle East.

I came back to the same people, close loved ones too, family, friends, albeit people who haven’t experienced or have seen what I’ve seen. I felt like I was in a coma for 9 months, or to me, they were. Like going to sleep, then waking up a year later. Things have changed; There’s a new president, new graffiti on the walls, some big and small changes, and some things that didn’t change at all. They got back a girl, who looks the same, but not so much; a subtle difference is there and they can’t quite figure it out.

I was quiet at first. I mean, what should I say? And it seemed to me, they didn’t know where to start either.

Have you seen what I have seen? … No, you can’t imagine. Have I seen what you have seen? No. I can’t imagine too.

But I think, at least in my case, they can see some signs. My disenchantment, staying in my room for hours on end, keeping quiet, or just being suddenly explosive and angry, sleep disturbances because no matter how much Abbas El Akkad is quiet, it’s not quiet enough, not remotely. Going out becomes a burden, and I almost developed a phobia to driving in Egypt traffic.

And now ever since I got back, my closest companion is a water bottle. In China, where I was, everyone had a plastic water bottle, young or old, even Kung Fu masters and policemen carried them. The bottles were filled with strange looking herbal teas, carrying some flowers or seeds, or just plain hot water to sip on. It’s second nature there. Especially with water.

And I picked the habit.

Now, my water bottle has become my constant.

No, not my pictures and videos from there, not my Kung Fu uniforms, or my Shaolin weapons or Buddhist accessories (because these seem like things bought from a souvenir shop, and my weapons look like heavily-used movie props. In Egypt, they look so out of place, drowned in clutter. I look at them, and I almost can’t believe I know how to use them. Sometimes I see in them the same alienation I feel in my heart).

But my water bottle is different; it’s a simple, small reminder that I was part of a different culture, at least for a while. No one around me sips on hot water; some make fun of me. But that makes it even more precious, because it’s a part of the China experience that they can see, touch, poke fun at me for. The water bottle is cheap, it’s not something I can order on ebay or ship from a Kung Fu shop abroad, or want to. I couldn’t have got it unless I was there.

It’s kitsch, it’s used, it’s scratched from multiple falls to the floor, it’s too normal to be a fantasy and I fill it with steaming hot water and sip on it like my friends the Chinese do.

My plastic water bottle –which sells for 15 yuan a pop– with the plastic pink top and the faded Chinglish writing is the proof I was there, that China didn’t happen in my head while I was sleeping.

I was there because my plastic water bottle is here.

Just knowing this gives me peace.

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My plastic security blanket; I owe it a bit of my sanity
Les élus

Religion: An afterthought

Just to be clear to readers, regarding my previous post “Religion,” when I say the word ‘religion’ in any post I’m generally referring not just to the current Islamic religious institution (except in cases when I clearly name Islam straight up), but to other orthodox religious institutions as well, including the Church for instance. For me, many of these institutions in my part of the world are radical, perhaps for reasons that have to do more with application than anything else, or so it seems. That said, sometimes revered and holy texts play a part too. But I’m not here to hand down verdicts, pit one religion against another or decide which faith invites more condemnation or praise.

I choose to talk about my own experience, and I’m only responsible for that.

Hopefully, one day, others, whatever their faiths are, or those who have left the faith, revised their approach to it or still cling to it for reasons they know best, can open up and talk about their experiences too, honestly. Be they Muslim, Coptic, atheist, Baha’i, agnostic, Jewish, or Hindu. No religion is above critique, and none is void of some good as well.

My words and anecdotes, from here on, should not be taken as a pretext to “prove” the flaw of this religion or that, or as a launch pad for blame or as a means to boast about the superiority of one ideology or thought over another. At the end of the day, whatever the original thought maybe, if its application or processing are flawed, if questioning is absent, and genuine doubts and concerns are crushed, tabooed, ignored or rebuffed, it doesn’t matter if the thought carries the names of “Muhammad” or “Jesus” or “Moses,” “G-d” or “Buddha” or all of them combined, it doesn’t matter if it was originally desired to bring peace, or love or justice, it still won’t work. Not now, not ever.

Eventually, no matter how much one believes an ideology or religion is not what its followers want it to be, but what it really is, both notions will be mixed and confused.

Our minds depend on associations to understand the world around us.

It’s really as simple as that.

Into the Trenches

Religion

When the word ‘religion’ is mentioned, because of some conditioning and what it has come to be defined as, I can’t help but think ‘restrictions.’ My body even reacts to the word; I instantly feel closed up, claustrophobic, I could feel it in my chest; breathing becomes shorter and my jaws tense.

Group of people dancing in nightclub, laughing, close-upFor me, the word kills possibilities, like free travel, wearing what I feel makes me beautiful, enjoying some things, doing what at heart feels right, connecting with others from all walks of life (Women, and *men*. Yup, I don’t like the “religious” idea of avoiding intimate relations with men, save the husband, or having to wait until I get married to have heart-to-heart conversations with a man, share dreams with or travel and spend great time together. In fact, most of the men I met recently and whose company I enjoyed tremendously, who I opened up to, and shared parts of myself with, I know I’d never marry or fall in love with. It’s about connecting. “Islam” as we know it, makes me feel these small pleasures, these connections, can be taken away in the name of “haram” or “self-preservation” or whatever).

The word ‘judgement’ also comes to mind. To be religious, in my experience, was to be judged too, by none other than those people who are/were supposed to be pious and God-fearing. In the name of “‘Amr bel ma’rouf” or “nasee7a” or “taqweem” or even duty. All the same.

And suddenly instead of being a moral code, or a moral compass, perhaps a quest to finding peace and the creator of this world, religion becomes a behavioral checklist of what is deemed right or wrong, more often than not from the perspective of those who practice it. And you can’t do a bigger disservice to religion; self-appointed preachers are probably the number one reason people feel alienated in some religious communities. But hey, it seems I’ve been barking up this very same old tree for quite a while now.

The word ‘religion’ now feels like the antithesis not just of freedom, but of spiritual well-being, living life through the heart, to the fullest; feeling, throwing yourself into the world, and making moments count. The worst about those restrictions associated with religion, especially “Islam” (or more likely the thing that it has morphed into these days in this part of the world) is that they’re distracting at best, and at their worst, they drive one away from experiencing life––the path–– with courage and with every fiber of one’s being. It brings fear, and it turns one away from the very thing one feels one must pursue.

And this is why many have recently broke ranks with religion, not just because of hostile sermons, the wrong examples and bad publicity, but because in their core, these people decided they want to experience life, without people reminding them at every corner of ‘harams‘ and ‘inappropriateness’ that seem to go against what their souls are hungry for.

And that’s also why you find many religious people who are not happy; or who pretend to be happy (or force themselves to be happy, and feel guilty when they can’t, or deny their troubles and live in cocoons, or insist they’re happy in an attempt to make the world believe it so they could believe, or worse defend the very thing that makes them unhappy out of fear, guilt, or habit).

Happiness is a spontaneous, simple feeling that can’t be forced; peace is not a feeling that one can talk him or herself into. When I see my cats, for instance, I feel happy. No one has to talk me into “having to feel happy” since pets “should make me happy.” It’s instant; it’s a feeling comfortable with itself, gentle sometimes, and overwhelming in others. And when it comes, it’s never associated with a need to make others think or do certain things. It’s like being in love. In fact, it is being in love. When you’re in love, every person and everything is beautiful.

If religious people in this part of the world “were in love,” this kind of love, they wouldn’t fight and bicker with others, feel superior by virtue of belonging to this or that faith, they wouldn’t find the need to change anyone; love is sufficient. You feel it, and then you start seeing the world differently.

That’s why it was always easy for mystics and prophets, and the enlightened, to be at ease with people (not rejoicing in their praise, and not taking insult when they hurt them); they were in love. You have no time for pettiness when you’re in love.

Trust me, when your soul wants something, is aching for something, there’s nothing that could be done ––including sermons, ‘nice conversations’ or immersion in holy books–– that can shut that up. Back in the day, when I used to feel that ache, some friends used to dismiss this as ‘waswasa‘; ‘the shaytan who wants you to stray from the path.’ That or
(النفس الأمارة بالسوء). I was asked to intensify the rituals; read Quran more regularly, they said, ponder, or do this or that. And in fact it is pondering that finally showed me that the ‘shaytan‘ (not the fantastical creature, but something very twisted inside me, a mixture of disillusionment, good intentions badly placed, conditioning and guilt) that was the thing keeping me on that path, the one my soul knew it was not for me. I also realized that my ‘nafs‘ was the victim there, not the aggressor.  I realized that the light I was looking for was not in ritual, or in books, but it’s inside, perhaps covered by all that.

You can’t shut up the voice of the soul, and you don’t want to, it’s all truth.

I’m not trying to make any arguments here. In fact, I don’t know what I’m doing except sharing what the word ‘religion’ has come to mean for me. “Religion,” as we know it, has become something that makes my soul cringe. But now, I don’t believe it’s my soul I should blame.

In fact, perhaps “religion” owes my soul an apology.

x-meditate
source: lamajigmeessays.blogspot.com
Books That Inspire, Buddha

The Buddha: The State Before an Explosion

Some books recounting the life of Buddha, especially of Western origin, tell the story of Prince Siddharta Guatama like a fairy tale, a myth.

Not this play, by Paul Carus.

It thoroughly dwells on the mood and the state of mind of Buddha before the enlightenment, before the mystical transformation, the crossing of man from the realm of humans to the realm of gods.

Art source: interactive.wxxi.org
Art source: interactive.wxxi.org

In some tales, Buddha is depicted as a one-dimensional character, shielded from the idea of suffering. His predicament begins after he accidently witnesses a funeral, signs of old age, and a sick man, all in one day, in additiong to glimpsing a monk, a man of God who seemed detached from the world, after which he decides to leave the palace of his father (the King) in search for answers.

But Carus takes us into the mind of the Buddha, before he became one, and hints that his journey had started long before that fated encounter with death, sickness, and decay. It started when Buddha became disenchanted with the old gods, realizing they brought him no peace, when his mind started to wander outside of the walls of the palace, long before his body did.

Carus puts it simply, speaking of Buddha’s first step on the path, he says “He ponders on the problems of the world. He ponders on life’s meaning much, investigates the origin of things.”

But those around Buddha were worried; they didn’t understand what burdened his heart. He had a wife, riches, a new-born son, and a “religion” that should save him. In vain, they tried to pull him back into their world.

But apart from spiritual and mental burdens, on the personal level, I find great signficance in the fact that we get to see through this play that enlightnment does not begin with a desire for knowing but begins with character.

One needs to carry certain attributes … before God or the Light could ever enter him or her, before they ever decide that departure from their old world is essential.

Enlightened beings are not born in piety but in revolution; awakening comes first in recognizing one’s need to stray from the crowd, come what may. Enlightenment begins with a measure of indepenence, and a fierceness in refusing false security and authority.

And as we see, social norms and the powers that be, embodied in Visakha the minister of state in this play, fights this blossoming independence with all their might.

Why?

Because free thought is “dangerous,” because in Visakha’s words, it’s a threat to “the sanctioned order of our institutions,” says he, who is at once a man of state and a man appointed to guard the religious institution of the time.

A man, like Buddha, who rejects the socially accepted, government-sanctioned godly “practices” and views of the time is bound above all, to leave “the Brahman ritual in deep contempt.” The Brahmans were the priests of the ancient Hindu/Vedic religion, who were responsible for ritualistic sacrifice. They were the first to fight Buddha tooth and nail post-enlightenment.

God has no place in Visakha’s arguments, or the Brahmans’. It’s order that concerns them; mainting the distinction between ranks of this Hindu echelon. It’s about running a tight ship; it is as simple as that.

Those who have not experienced such turmoil that Carus speaks of when he speaks of Buddha––the God-shaped void and the need for answers, or more likely the right questions––or never faced such resistance by the Visakhas of the world may never know how it feels.

For those who do or did, the following may be relatable.

From the play “Buddha: A Drama in Five Acts” by Paul Carus:

Suddhodana, the king [Buddha’s father]: My son Siddhartha [Buddha’s name before enlightenment] truly loves his wife,

And since their wedlock has been blessed by this

Sweet, promising, this hale and healthy child,

His melancholy will give way to joy,

And we reclaim his noble energies

To do good service for our race and state.

New interests and new duties give new courage

And thus this babe will prove his father’s saviour

For he will tie his soul to life again.

Pajapati, the queen [the King’s wife but not Sidharta’s mother]: I fear his grief lies deeper than you think

Suddhodana, the king: What sayest thou, my trusty counselor?

Visakha, the minister of state: This is the last hope which I have for him,

I followed your advise and tried all means

To cure Siddhartha of his pensive mood.

I taught him all that will appeal to man:

The sports of youth, the joy of poetry

And art, the grandeur of our ancient lore,

The pleasures even of wanton sense; but naught

Would satisfy the yearnings of his heart.

Suddhodana, the king: Yet for religion he shows interest: He ponders on the problems of the world.

Visakha, the minister of state: Indeed he ponders on life’s meaning much,

Investigates the origin of things.

But irreligious are his ways of thought.

He shows no reverence for Issara,

And Indra is to him a fairy tale.

He grudgeth to the gods a sacrifice.

And sheddeth tears at immolated lambs.

Oh no! he’s not religious. If he were,

His ills could easily be cured by faith,

By confidence in Issara, the Lord.

Suddhodana, the king: What then is your opinion of the case?

Visakha, the minister of state: Siddhartha is a youth of rarest worth,

And he surpasseth men in every virtue

Except in one. ––He is too independent:

He recognizeth no authority,

Neither of men nor gods.

He suffereth

[More and more impressively]

From the incurable disease of thought.

Suddhodana, the king: Cure thought with thought, teach him philosophy,

Show him the purpose of our holy writ.

Instruct him in the meaning of the Vedas,

Reveal to him their esoteric sense.

Visakha, the minister of state: My lord, I did, but he is critical,

He makes objections and will not believe.

He raises questions which I cannot answer,

And his conclusions are most dangerous.

Pajapati, the queen: It seems to me that you exaggerate;

Siddartha is not dangerous.

He is As gentle as my sister was, his mother,

And almost overkind to ever one.

Visakha, the minister of state: I know, my gracious lady, but even kindness

May harmful be, if it is out of place.

Suddhodana, the king: I see no danger in his gentle nature.

Visakha, the minister of state: But he lacks strength, decision, warlike spirit.

Suddhodana, the king: That cometh with maturer years.

Visakha, the minister of state: I doubt it ––

Your so, my Lord, not only hath no faith In holy writ, neither does he believe

In caste-distinction, and he would upset

The sanctioned order of our institutions.

He would abolish sacrifice and holdeth

The Brahman ritual in deep contempt.

Suddhodana, the king: Your words alarm me.

Visakha, the minister of state: Rightly so; I fear

That he will stir the people to rebellion;

But since a child is born to him, his mind

May turn from dreams to practical affairs.

There are some men who care not for themselves,

Who scorn high caste, position, wealth and honor,

So far as they themselves may be concerned,

But they are anxious for their children’s fortune,

And so Siddhartha soon may change his views.

Suddhodana, the king: Let us be patient for a while yet longer.

Keep everything unpleasant out of sight,

Invite him merry company. Remove

His gloomy cousin Devadatta. He tries

To reach a state of bliss by fasts,

His very play is penance and contrition.

……….

I leave you with this thought. Peace and Amituofo.

Note: According to lore, Buddha lost his mother either in childbirth or when he was a week old, and was raised by his aunt. So the queen in this play is his father’s wife or his aunt, but not this mother.

This is the second post in a series by yours truly meditating on the life of Buddha. The first is right here.

Les élus

The Buddha

“All the commentaries have said that Buddha renounced the world. It is not true. The world simply fell away. It has ceased to have any meaning for him.” –– Osho

When Buddha saw it for what it is, when he saw death, sickness and old age, he became disenchanted by the world, and declared, “I cannot fool myself anymore.”

What made the prince declare he was “sick unto death” and drove him out of the palace of his father? What did he do next when he saw that “diamonds” were dust, as scriptures put it? Where did it all begin?

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Source: sathyasaibaba.wordpress.com

During the next few weeks, I’d like ––in short notes here–– to share some excerpts from literature on the life and teachings of the Buddha, Siddharta Guatama, and general comments on his life and teachings. In my view, some of Buddha’s thoughts are timeless and illuminating.

But before I do so, let me first dispel some stereotypes about Buddha.

And I ask you, while reading this, to please start with a clean slate and forget what the West has promoted about Buddhism. Forget the Dalai Lama, or even the highlighted practices that new age Buddhism has been associated with. Read this with an open heart.

Buddha was not, and is not, a God 

He was not a god or deity per se, at least not in the traditional sense or in the way that people in this part of the world define the word “god”.

Budda was a human being, who was as lost and tortured by reality as many around us. He wanted to understand, and he left the familiar in search for meaning. He was a rich prince who had it all, including money, power, a wife and a small child, but one day “having seen everything, and found nothing,” he simply turned inward. He abandoned his life and riches, and the palace of his father, and went on a long journey that ended with him “reaching enlightenment.”

Or rather began with that.

He returned to the house of his father years later, a different man, and then continued speaking to whoever would listen about his experience. He lived a simple life after. His own father and wife became part of his following. Buddha was not a god, he was a prince, a warrior, a swordsman, and one of the best archers of his time, then a monk and a seeker. He was a son, a cousin, a neighbor, a brother, a husband, a father, a teacher and finally an inspiration to those around him.

What is enlightenment?

In the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment is an act of self-destruction and annihilation at its core, its aim is to reach a state of emptiness, and reception of the truth. Buddhism does not define truth, but alludes to it. In its heart of hearts, it has very few absolutes if any.

Enlightenment is returning to the state of godliness –– what some mystics and Sufis call unity, or merging with the divine, becoming one with it, to the point when the seeker is not distinguishable for what he or she seeks. And from there, the idea of Buddha becoming a “god” has emerged; in the end it’s nothing beyond the idea of Buddha attaining a state of transcendence.

But again, Siddharta [the Buddha that we know] is not unique in that. Buddhism believes that this state of enlightenment ––absolute sight, reaching a knowing, becoming a mirror that reflects truth–– can be reached by anyone. Everyone has the potential, but few of course reach this level of purity, and so they’re revered as ‘super beings.’

Perhaps the term god, in our books, is not the best way to describe the experience, because we use it exclusively to refer to the Creator or the Higher Intelligence that governs the Universe. And in this respect and translating this state into our terms, Buddha, even by Buddhists standard, is not a god, but a human being that saw what others have not yet seen, but which could come to see if they take the path. His state would be similar to what Sufis would refer to as ‘3aref’ or ‘3arefeen.’

In fact, in Sanskrit, buddha is a general term that refers to the enlightened among humans, whoever they are, and Buddha, capitalized, usually refers to the most famous of those, the enlightened prince Siddharta Guatama, the subject of this post.

Buddhism is not a religion

The ritualistic quasi-dogmatic institutionalization that Buddhism is experiencing now is nothing but an innovation by its followers. When Buddha died, around 70 schools of thought were born, each approaching the philosophy differently, and adopting different texts and different degrees of rituals and dogmatism. But original Buddhism is not a religion. In fact, in its pure form, it’s everything but that. It’s merely a signpost, a way of looking at life’s biggest questions; a mystical tradition if you will, and a path that has a very good chance of pointing people to truth. And that’s that.

Only crucial moments are highlighted in the story of Buddha

Buddha never claimed he’s either a deity or a god. But a human being who found a truth he cannot put into words, but so can only describe a possible path to. In fact, the major schools of thought differ on the relevance of the details of Buddha’s life (including when and where he lived precisely) because, in the words of Karen Armstrong, “they were more concerned about the meaning of historical events.” Some stories were there only for allegorical or symbolic meaning, important for their significance regardless of historic accurate detail.

Armstrong says, “The scriptures show that the first Buddhists thought deeply about several crucial moments in [Buddha’s] biography: his birth, his renunciation of normal domestic life, his enlightenment, the start of his teaching career, and his death.” The incidents of great importance are the subject of scripture, which derives its teachings from Buddha’s experiences. “His was essentially an autobiographical philosophy,” says Armstrong.

As Buddha puts it: “He who sees me, sees the dhamma (the teaching), and he who sees the dhamma sees me.” Again quoting Armstrong, “it follows that understanding the Buddha’s life, which is to an extent fused with his teaching, can help us all understand the human predicament.”

source: www.thebuddhism.net
source: http://www.thebuddhism.net

Buddha: A guide or a superhuman?

Some monks simply regarded Buddha as a guide and an exemplar, others began to see him as superman. According to Armstrong, traditional scholars used to see the former as a purer form of Buddhism while the latter was seen as a corruption. Modern scholars see both as authentic.

Guatama [Buddha], says Armstrong, “did not want a personality cult, but paradigmatic individuals such as himself, Socrates, Confucius, and Jesus tend to be revered either as gods, or as superhuman beings. Even the Prophet Muhammad, who always insisted that he was an ordinary human being, is venerated by Muslims as the Perfect Man, an archetype of the complete act of surrender (islam) to God. The immensity of the being and achievements of these people seemed to defy ordinary categories. […]

“After his enlightenment, we get no sense of his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, moments of desperation, elation or intense striving.  What remains is an impression of a transhuman serenity. The Buddha is often compared to non-human beings––to animals, trees or plants–– not because he is subhuman or inhumane, but because he has utterly transcended the selfishness that most of us regard as inseparable from our condition. The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human.”

He is not the only buddha, many came before, and many would come after, he said

“[Buddha] would have said that there was nothing unique about his life. There had been other Buddhas before him, each of whom delivered the same dhamma (teachings) and had exactly the same experiences. Buddhist tradition claims that there have been twenty-five such enlightened human beings and that after the present historical era, when knowledge of his essential truth has faded, a new Buddha, called Metteya, will come to earth and go through the same life-cycle.”

Buddha’s Prophecy and the last buddha

Metteya, the buddha of the next age that Buddha spoke of, is commonly represented sitting on a raised seat, his feat resting on the ground, a sign that he will arise from his seat and appear in the world. The Sanskrit word for the name Metteya means “friendly and benevolent” and/or “love.” And unlike, the thin famished-looking Buddha of that world, depicted in meditation, with his eyes closed, in a state of “listening/reception” or “waiting,” the Chinese depict the next Buddha in an image of abundance and joy and he’s usually smiling or laughing. Metteya, whom Buddha spoke of, would achieve complete enlightenment when he appears and would teach the purest form of the Dhamma (the teachings that lead to enlightement or illumination). He will appear in a time when this Dhamma had been forgotten.This Metteya, according to ancient Buddhist scripture, was expected to come in the future as the last of the earthly Buddhas.

This is a mysterious aspect of Buddhism, this prophecy, and many Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars have elaborated on this concept of Metteya (as well as many claiming to know who he was). And what I personally found interesting is that some Sanskrit researchers, including Muslim ones, have concluded that this “last and final awakened Buddha” is none other than our Prophet Muhammad, the last of this heavenly kin. According to some versions of the prophecy, Buddha said that Metteya would appear “in the West,” which to India and China, is our part of the world. He would appear in a distant future before the “end of time.”

In the words of Osho, “There have been many buddhas before him and there have been many buddhas after him –– and as long as every human being can become a buddha, new buddhas will go on springing up in the future. Everyone has the potentiality … it is only a matter of waiting for the right time. Some day, tortured by the outside reality, in despair of having seen everything and found nothing, you are bound to turn inward.”

Buddha has not abandoned the world, he just saw it for what it is

“Buddha has not renounced the world, he has renounced his illusions about it,” says Osho. “And that … was a happening, not an act. When renunciation comes as a happening it has a tremendous beauty, because there is no motive in it. It is not a means to gain something else. It is total. You are finished with desiring, you are finished with the future, you are finished with power, money and prestige, because you have seen the futility of it all.”

Buddha on the nature of truth

“Whether you believe or not makes no difference to truth. But if you believe in God you will go on seeing––at least thinking that you see––God. If you don’t believe in God, this disbelief in God will prevent you from knowing. All beliefs prevent you because they become prejudices around you, they become ‘thought-coverings’ –– what Buddha calls avarnas.

The man of intelligence does not believe in anything and does not disbelieve in anything. The man of intelligence is open to recognizing whatsoever is the case. If God is there he will recognize––but not according to his belief. He has no belief.

[…] You cannot see something that goes against your belief; you will become afraid, you will become shaky, you will start trembling. You have put so much into your belief––so much life, so much time, so much prayers. For fifty years a man has been devoted to his belief––now, suddenly, how can he recognize the fact that there is no God? A man has put his whole life into communism, believing that there is no God; how can he come to see if God is there? He will go on avoiding.

I’m not saying anything about whether God exists or is not. What I am saying is something concerned with you, not with God. A clear mind is needed, an intelligence is needed that does not cling to any belief. Then you are like a mirror: you reflect that which is; you don’t distort it.”

Buddha on Knowledge and information 

“Buddha is not knowledgeable. An intelligent person does not care much about information and knowledge. An intelligent person cares much more for the capacity to know. His authentic interest is in knowing, not in knowledge.

Knowing gives you understanding; knowledge only gives you a feeling of understanding without giving you real understanding. Knowledge is a false coin; it is deceptive. It only gives you the feeling that you know, yet you don’t know at all. You can accumulate knowledge as much as you want, you can go on hoarding, you can become extremely knowledgeable. You can write books, you can have PhDs and LittDs, and still you remain the same ignorant, stupid person you have always been. Those degrees don’t change you; they can’t change you. In fact, your stupidity becomes stronger; it has degrees now! It proves itself through certificates. It cannot prove itself through life, but it can prove itself through the certificates.

[…]

I have seen intelligent farmers, but I have not seen intelligent professors. I have seen intelligent woodcutters, but I have not seen intelligent professors. Why? What has gone wrong with these people?

One thing has gone wrong: they can depend on knowledge. They need not become knowers, they can depend on knowledge. They have found a secondhand way. The firsthand needs courage. The firsthand, knowing, only a few people can afford––the adventurers, people who go beyond the ordinary path where crowds move, people who take small footpaths into the jungle of the unknowable. The danger is that they may get lost. The risk is high. When you can get secondhand knowledge, why bother? You can just sit in your chair. You can go to the library or to the university, you can collect information. You can make a big pile of information and sit on top of it.”

Buddha on death 

Buddha chose the color yellow for his followers’ robes. Yellow represents death, the setting sun, the evening. According to Osho, “Buddha emphasized death, and it helps in a way. People become more and more aware of life in contrast to death. When you emphasize death again and again, you help people to awaken; they have to be awake because death is coming. Wherever Buddha would initiate a new sannyasin, he would tell him, “Go to the cemetery; just be there and watch funeral pyres, dead bodies being carried and burned … go on watching. And remember that this is going to happen to you, too.” Three months’ meditation on death, then coming back–– that was the beginning of sannyas.

On Godliness and the moment of illumination 

“The human being becomes the center of religion, his innermost being becomes godliness, for which you do not have to go anywhere, you simply have to stop going outside. You have to remain within, slowly, slowly settling at your center. The day you are settled at the center, the explosion happens.”

On the enlightenment of Buddha

“It rarely happens that a human being becomes enlightened. It is such a rare and unique phenomenon that the very soul of existence waits for it, longs for it. Thousands of years pass, and then somebody becomes enlightened,” says Osho.

When Buddha reached that state, he sat in silence. He found no use in speaking. Higher forces, call them deities or angels, came down to earth, touched his feet and asked him to speak, urging him, telling him that existence is waiting.

“But Guatam Buddha has his own arguments,” says Osho. “He said, ‘I can understand your compassion, and I would like to speak. For seven days I have been wavering between the two, whether to speak or not to speak, and every argument goes for not speaking … I am going to be misunderstood. I am going to be condemned; nobody is going to listen to me in the way that the words of an enlightened man have to be listened to. Listening needs a certain training, a discipline; it is not just hearing.”

The beings, after deliberation, responded telling him that he can go misunderstood by the majority of men, but if he is understood by only one percent, then this is enough, “it is not small in this vast universe. Even if one person in the whole universe becomes enlightened because of your speaking, it is worth it.”

Buddha preached for forty-two years after enlightenment, and until his death. And those who become enlightened “did not become enlightened because of what Buddha was saying, they become enlightened because they could feel what Buddha was––his presence, his vibe, his silence.” Tradition has it that only a few reached that state.

––––

That’s the first of my posts about Buddha and his life. In later posts I will share more of his words, and wisdom, in the hope that whatever your religion or faith is, or the lack thereof, his philosophy can help you ponder on the beauty and mystery of life, and of the inner self, and its potential for complete illumination. For me, faced with the teachings of Buddha, I find myself quoting النجاشي the King of Ethiopia’s words to early Muslims بتصرف, directed to my Buddhist brothers and friends:

.والله إن هذا وما نزل على محمد ليخرج من مشكاة واحدة

Peace and Amituofo.

—–

Note: Dhamma or Dharma: Law, or natural laws, what sustains the order that uphold the Universe, a body of teachings, or sometimes it also means religion and duty or the knowledge of and the duty to the conduct set by the Buddha as a way of achievening enlightenement. 

Travel Writing

The Shaolin Letters: Genesis

If you’ve missed reading about my little adventure leaving it all behind and pilgriming all the way from Egypt to the Shaolin Temple in the north of mainland China to learn Kung Fu, Qi Gong meditation and zen Buddhism, here’s a recap:

That Awkward Moment in Kung Fu camp 

Shaolin Temple Kung Fu School

Snapshots

Kung Fu Cuteness

Breaking Through

Xiao Hong Quan – first form

They Don’t Sell Deodorants in Dengfeng

Post-It: Time On My Hands

World Knowledge in Dengfeng

Bridges Make Me Smile

It’s All Relative

Post-It: Gunfire and Whips

A Glimpse Into My Training

Post-It: Kung Fu Graduates

Buddhology

Shaolin Humor

From the Center of Heaven and Earth (aka Shaolin China)

Dress Rehearsal

Mànhuà-inspired Silliness

Post-It Shaolin Tip

A Documentary on Shaolin Wushu and Zen Buddhism

Snakes, Maspero and Shaolin Dreams

Post-It: Rain

Post-It: Qi Gong

These were all posted less than two weeks into my journey, and I have been here 10 weeks and very prolific. Take a look at the entire archive of my Shaolin China posts if you’d like to jump forward to a date and see my May and June posts, or to get the whole batch of letters I’ve written to the world from ‘the Center of Heaven and Earth’: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com/archive

Hope you enjoy reading them, please do send me your feedback, here or via email at pakinamamer at yahoo dot com.

Love and light x

Les élus

Of Chinese Little Dragons and My New Blog

Shaolin humor
Up side down: In China it’s easy to adopt a slightly different perspective of life and self.

I’m in China, and 10 weeks after I settled in, I only just downloaded a MAC VPN but I know I’m not going to use it often.

I fell in love with sneakily climbing up the Great Firewall, taking a tiny peak then quickly coming down again. I have no desire to go beyond it forever.

Earlier this year, I decided I’m taking time out from work, post-revolution Egypt, and the incessant unstoppable noise and flying to the birthplace of zen and martial arts: Shaolin China.

I’m currently in Shaolin Kung Fu training in a Shaolin Temple Martial Arts school called Xiaolong or Little Dragon. In three months or so, I’m planning on moving to live inside the temple for a while, higher up on Mount Song. Currently, I’m at the foot of the mountain — literally and figuratively. Before that, I may spend a few weeks in a more secluded Shaolin Monastery in the south-east of China, where the weather is milder, and there are actually English speakers who can help me explore zen Buddhism and wushu philosophy a bit deeper. I blog about my experience here: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com

Do check it out, and leave me questions and comments!

Amituofo.

Les élus, Travel Writing

Sahl Hasheesh – Not for Explorers

I gave my camping gear — a clumsily folded dusty tent, sand-riddled sleeping bag that I suspect still harbors that dead spider from my last desert trip, oversized torch and an ear-piercing whistle suitable for emergencies — one last look before I pulled an empty suitcase out of my closet and packed it.

I’m a nature-loving girl who’s gotten a bit too used to camping and finds sleeping under the stars familiar but never unimpressive. But this time I was breaking ranks with tradition and heading to a five-star hotel: Premier Le Reve in Sahl Hasheesh.

Sahl Hasheesh had often brought to mind a picture of seclusion — it remained for years a faraway land where those who had just tied the knot enjoyed a pristinely azure sea walking hand-in-hand. I firmly believed that the law of the land forbade the single, heartbroken or formally non-committed from going anywhere near it. I thought it would be scandalous and frowned upon to plan a trip with friends there or, God forbid, with family.

But recently, the area has slowly gained some prominence and become increasingly popular as a weekend getaway, with event organizers taking their DJs, booze, party spirit and rowdy customers to Sahl Hasheesh, only 20 kilometers away from Hurghada’s international airport.

It’s easy. Spend one hour on a plane (the flight costs less than LE 1,000, even in the high season), arrive, check in, throw your bags in the room, tan by day and party by night.

Fun? Not to me. I always loathed places like this with a passion, and I secretly judged people who could have “fun” staying in a fancy hotel and living it easy. In recent years, travel for me has become an adventurous affair. If there’s no risk of being stung by a scorpion or pillaged by rogue Bedouin gangs on the road, it’s not fun enough.

But here I was — the desert girl— heading to the airport with my sister and mother and actually looking forward to staying in a hotel with a French name that offers deluxe rooms with king-sized beds, pillows softer than a baby’s skin, delightful buffets and premium service.

Once I set foot in Cairo airport’s departure hall, something looked awfully wrong. It was unnaturally overcrowded as queues of travelers zigzagged toward empty stalls, members of staff on site were very few and shouts could be heard in the distance.

It turns out that air-traffic controllers had halted their work in protest of their low wages. Negotiations were underway while the airport was left in a half-crippled state.

Flights were delayed for days, planes took off or landed every few hours, instead of regularly and many were caught up in the mess of it all — one woman even wailed to airport staff telling them she’d been stranded with her kids in the airport for two full days waiting to go to Syria, afraid to leave lest her flight was suddenly announced. Some of the male passengers had started to become violent, cursing and pushing staff and throwing around threats left, right and center.

Three hours later than scheduled, our plane took off. An hour later, we were in Hurghada’s airport, where a hotel chauffeur carried a sign with my misspelled name scribbled in pencil in tiny font on plain A4. It took several minutes and a few calls back and forth between me and the hotel to actually realize that, indeed, this was my driver.

The road to the hotel would have been scenic if Hurghada’s streets weren’t stacked with concrete resorts and big hotels lined side by side crowding the clear skyline left and right. We finally arrived at Le Reve in a secluded spot in Sahl Hasheesh, which literally means “the grassy plain.” The hotel was pretty traditional in its general architecture. If you spent your childhood years vacationing in Alexandria’s Montazah or summers in its famous Palestine Hotel, you’ll know what I mean.

The lobby of Le Reve was vast — with a small pool of red flower petals right in the center. The feel of the place — its design and the art it carried — were modern albeit with an exotic piece here or there.

We were escorted to the VIP lounge and offered cold beverage as we waited for our rooms to be prepared. I had previously informed the hotel that I would be quickly reviewing their resort as part of my travelogue. But armed with two pre-paid Visa cards, I said I’d pay for everything myself. It pleased me as a writer, because I didn’t feel an obligation to be too nice — though a tinge of guilt did creep up when the hotel assistant informed me that they’d decided to bump me up to a deluxe room instead of the standard one I picked.

I took the keys, thanking him warmly. But as I looked around the hotel, humungous and stacked full with rooms along a U-shaped structure that hugs two large pools and opens up onto the sea, I suspected I would not like the place. The rooms’ terraces were narrow, and only very few rooms had a proper view of the sea.

When I was taken up to my room, my doubts were confirmed. The room was small, and quite plain for a deluxe room, and the only thing I actually liked was the spacious bathroom.

And, mind you, it wasn’t an inexpensive stay. A double room costs a little over LE 1,200 per night. Even the minibar had few options, which did not include nuts, chips or any of the requisite calorie-packed snacks that any self-respecting hotel fridge should have. Considering that more often than not I snuggle up in a sleeping bag under a curtain of stars with only a sheet of rubber beneath my bag to protect my back from the harsh ground, my standards are not high. Still, I couldn’t get myself to like the place.

My mood steadily plummeted until dinnertime, and I became slightly hopeful again. Perhaps I’ll get my money back in food, I thought.

My sister, mother and I took a small tour of the hotel’s restaurants. There were good Japanese, Chinese and Italian options, but it turned out that we had to book in advance for these. So we settled on the main restaurant, Turquoise, and the open buffet was not bad after all.

There was an explosion of color in the salad area and the choices were quite inventive. I went straight to the salmon and tuna wraps then stacked my plate with cold cuts and fresh, neatly chopped veggies. By the time I got to the main course I was already full, so I nibbled on some chicken kiev (delicious nonetheless), then went straight for dessert and a medley of fresh fruit.

The breakfast menu was no less satisfying — with an impressive variety of baked breads and mouthwatering pastry.

On my last evening, the friendly staff managed to squeeze in a table for me at Bella, the Italian restaurant — as an exception since I had forgotten to reserve a table in advance — and, as promised, it was a deliciously appealing gourmet experience. The hush, classy and cozy atmosphere of the small and tranquil diner was a nice change from the spacious noisy restaurant hall, echoing with the clickety-clack of tens of knives, forks and plates. They don’t offer pizzas, but they have an indulgent array of pastas and other savory traditional dishes.

If I ever go back to Le Reve, it’d be for the food; it’s consistently terrific.

As per the tradition of out-of-Cairo relaxing laid-back holidays, I spent my mornings and afternoons lazing by the pool, sipping on a cocktail or taking a swim while trying not to immerse my entire body in the water to protect my eyes. Only a day earlier, I had to undergo an invasive eye surgery that left me almost blind in one eye. The other eye was watery and my vision was blurred. I had to keep my shades on at all times, including at night, and had to shop for goggles so that no water would touch my eyes in case I went for a swim during the trip (and of course I was going to, corneal transplants be damned!).

The staff around the pool were friendly and quick to deliver on any request.

The hotel also carries a well-equipped gym, but I was in no mood for vigorous training. I felt that if I wanted a brisk walk or some exercise, I would have rather done that in the open.

I was quick to notice that during my stay, in the second week of October, my family and I were the only Egyptians at the hotel. All around me there were tourists, and when I inquired at some point at reception, I was told that it was a full house. Impressive, I thought, considering the tourism scare we experienced following the January 25 Revolution.

Following one of my dips, I decided to splurge on a spa treatment. Le Reve promotes itself as a spa hotel, and, in this regard, it does not disappoint. The Egyptian and Asian staff at the spa are passionate and professional. There was a long list of massage therapies and packages on offer that include sauna and jacuzzi use, scrubbing and a variety of Turkish baths.

I went for a hot stone massage which cost around €70. I can attest that the therapist that was assigned to me knew exactly how to tenderly release my stress and lengthen and stretch my fatigued muscles. She had a magical touch and I came out of that spa rejuvenated and feeling fresh.

But nights in Le Reve are not exciting.

There are a few bars — one a few meters from my room, whose emanating noise guaranteed I didn’t doze off before midnight. There’s also an “oriental show” that features a classic belly-dancing routine, which I found stale and unimaginative. Tourists sat perched up on plastic chairs around a small make-shift stage watching “whirling dervishes” dance and a belly dance show.

Sahl Hasheesh itself seemed like a cluster of resorts and hotels, without a bustling town center except for the one in nearby Hurghada.

Ridiculously bored one night, my family and I decided to take a limousine into Hurghada, which is rowdy and much more lively. It’s a $25 car ride to Hurghada and around $40 to Gouna, so not for the traveller on a tight budget. There’s a shuttle bus that goes to town, but it’s not regular.

Hurghada, its famous marina and Gouna have numerous shisha seaside cafes, bars and night clubs. If you’re a crowd and are up for a late night of raving or dance music, take yourself to Little Buddha on the Village Road, a safe option. If you prefer a more intimate atmosphere or if you’re a fan of Italian food, head straight to Divino diner and bar.

By the end of my stay, I grew restless and increasingly disenchanted; Le Reve failing to either impress or provide engaging activities — except for those few hours by the pool and in the spa. I remember thinking that whoever did the photography for the hotel’s website is a genius, because he or she made it look more beautiful that it actually was.

On the last day, I took my beloved Visa card and paid one last visit to the spa, which was truly the highlight of my experience, and I treated myself to another relaxing massage.

I was happy to leave, but I showered the staff with praise for bending over backwards to give me a better experience, with wide smiles and a friendly disposition.

Would I ever go back? Maybe. Next time I may pick a cozier hotel though; its sister boutique hotel, Premier Romance, perhaps?

But honestly, I’m not making plans to return any time soon.

What I learned from this trip? Luxury is an art, so no, modern decor, a grand pool, supreme service and a comfy bed might not be enough to impress even the roughest of travelers, if the setting and ambiance are not right. And if I’m paying a hefty sum, I expect a lot.

I also learned that my payment cards are slowly becoming my new best friends. Love big corporations or hate them, you have to admit, swiping your plastic for fancy services is deliciously fun, and for a traveler like myself, very practical.

 – Pakinam Amer 

In next installments of the “Visa Explorer Series,” I try another luxury resort, albeit one that doesn’t disappoint and leaves me wishing I had ten more loaded debit cards so I could take myself there every week. Then in my first Visa-related adventure, I take it all the way down south for a road trip that saw me and a friend driving more than 11 hours from Cairo to Aswan to spend a few nights on a charming island in the heart of Nubia. Stay tuned!

Originally published by Egypt Today Specials here: http://specials.egypttoday.com/travel/visa-explorer-sahl-hasheesh/

Feb 2012 Update: Unfortunately, due to personal reasons and travel plans, I’ve decided to halt this project. However, one day, when I feel like it, I promise I will come back here and blog about both the Ain Sokhna, and Cairo-Nubia road-trips. And I’ll have amazing pictures for you! Until then, love and light xx

Fluff, Les élus

The Philosophy of Touch

Before beginning this course, little did I know that massage – a form of physical therapy to improve health — is about communication, listening and getting feedback. Like personal relationships, a dance routine, or teamwork, it’s a two-way process in the sense that making it work is as much about the practitioner or therapist as it is about the patient or the receiver of the treatment.

Before using our hands, Gabriele Habashi, a reputed Cairo-based massage therapist and owner of Horizon center in Zamalek, Cairo, talked about privacy, trust, pain, skin memory and how considerate a masseur should be toward the people who allow him or her to touch their skin.

In the waiting room of the center, a friend and I sat cross-legged on the floor, which was dotted with warm-colored mats and large pillows. We were wide-eyed as we were given an elaborate introduction to the psychology of the body, its anatomy and its natural detoxification system. We sipped on hot aromatic tea, snacked on chocolate wafers, grapes and dates as Ms. Habashi spoke of the body’s stronger and softer parts, and invited us to experience the levels of self-awareness that go into the act [and art] of touching.

We were asked to explore different inanimate objects, like shiny smooth balls and stones, and to experiment with sinking in and “sinking up” with our weight against a door frame, to get the sense of what it means to have our own input in the process of touching. “We can communicate with an inner layer by knowing that there’s an inner layer. As important as technique is awareness. Touch different surfaces, and ask yourself, ‘does it become softer?’ Dwell on the depth of the touch,” she said.

“In our treatment, we deal with different layers of muscles and different types of tissue. You have to respect the tissue, be curious and open, not use a single approach to treat different muscles and tissues,” she added. “Sometimes, you have to stop applying pressure and wait. Stretch, caress, or stroke gently instead.”

Cupping a stone in the palm of my hand, I began to envision its anatomy — there are different densities and qualities to the things we touch and for all that comes in contact with our fingertips, and in turn our sensory receptors. An elaborate knowledge of surfaces is what an aspiring masseuse should start with.

Whether you’re doing it for fun, to treat a friend, a family member or your romantic partner to a sensuous massage, or as a prerequisite to rigorous training and certification, the journey begins with being aware of the feedback the surface you’re touching is giving you, and in your ability to have “maximum contact” with that surface.

“Am I aware of the feedback the skin gives me? Is the neck or back trusting or cringing away from me? Do I like touching it? How am I meeting the surface?”

As I meditated on these questions, I took in the sweet gentle smell that filled the center. I was told later that the relaxing aroma was of essential oils, pure naturally extracted oils that Gabriele revealed she used in both candle diffusers and in her homemade massage oils.

The atmosphere of the center was warm and serene, and it mirrored the temperament of the woman who was telling us about the philosophy behind a massage treatment. “One has to adore the moment,” she said at some point (reminding me that zen and stillness lie at the root of perfecting any technique). A mother of two, Gabriele is 48 years old, but easily looks like a woman in her late thirties — another aspect that made me trust her teachings; she obviously led a mindful, healthy lifestyle.

Before we began, she asked me and my friend (the only participants in this session) to sign a contract that confirmed we were taking this workshop “out of the best intentions,” that our touch is “non-committal” and that we respect the privacy of fellow participants. People come in with their scars, sensitivities and their own emotional and mental baggage about their bodies, and a masseur [or a course participant] should respect that, and keep any private information to themselves.

She explained that our skin has a memory; and that includes memory of abuse, and trauma. I probed deeper into the subject, inquiring if rape, school bullying, incest, or physical abuse can affect how people respond to a massage, or to others touching them, and Gabriele said that the “skin can get stiff as a result of being hit for instance. It can become resistant. Therapy can help the body get rid of persistent trauma, or trigger it if the person is treating you in a way you don’t like or if the massage is done by a person you don’t like.”

Gabriele makes no promises as to whether or not a massage can “heal” traumatic experiences. But she explained that regular massage treatment can help an abused or traumatized skin (in the psychological sense) to relax.

“The body has acquired patterns over the years and has learned certain reflexes that come out as a result of distrusting people, for instance. It’s that subconscious pattern that dictates movements, and it becomes apparent in the way we hold ourselves. Under stress, we fall back into our old patterns, and stress can feel like bullying. For a person who was bullied in school, stress feels like they’re back in there.” she said. “A good massage addresses these patterns, lets you reconsider old patterns, helps you let go of them, consciously.”

Once we started using our hands, and learning how to prop up a client for massage, the real challenge of the course began. The quality of your posture as a masseuse, how you carry your own weight, your mood and how clear your mind is are all parts of the equation.

Asking people to give you feedback during the massage is also valuable to the quality of the interaction; it helps you find out whether it is hurtful, nice or, for instance, ticklish. Making sure your client or your friend is comfortable, not too warm or too cold, and that their body is supported well is important.

“Before you touch, check the health history of the person. Check out their pain points. Hygiene is an important point, and it goes both ways,” Gabriele said.

Before beginning a massage, make sure your clothes and your surroundings are clean. Wipe away sweat from your client’s or your friend’s skin with a wet cloth if you have to. “If you’re going to touch feet, have them wash their feet,” she said.

You have to feel good about touching them, and not cringe away, feel disgusted or uncomfortable. “Treat yourself while treating others. Make sure you’re giving yourself a good time,” advised Gabriele.

When exploring skin, move your hands and fingers over protrusions, feel the hollows, buffers, the thresholds between bones, stay with “knots,” stiff tissue and muscle spasms, help the skin stretch until it eases in. “If I feel a lump here, is it better to wait on this spot, until the lump is more defined? Perhaps if I wait it will go away,” she said.

It’s not just technical, it’s a “feelings” affair– any “blockage” is sensed not seen.

In the first session, we were being trained on massaging fully clothed clients (and we were ourselves). Naturally, the practical part of the course is best illustrated by the instructor herself face-to-face as she guides you through the optimal use of your hands, and as she corrects and hones your posture, as well as that of your (imaginary) client. You slowly learn to become comfortable with using your hands, and making choices as you feel the skin: should you touch it with your whole hand, your palms, or your fingertips?

Before we left, we were briefed on the next part of the course in which we will learn about massage with oil. The instructor explained that you can easily make your massage oil at home, and that most ready-made massage oils bring together basic ingredients, like edible oil and essential oils, but could contain synthetically produced materials. “Olive oil, extra natural virgin oil, is beautiful for the skin. Cold-pressed sunflower oil, peanut oil, and almond oil are also good options. And you can get them anywhere. You can add a scent to it by adding a few drops of essential oils to the edible oil.”

Gabriele asked us to always check the properties of essential oils before using them. “For instance, geranium is a very relaxing oil, it’s good for the soul, but it’s sweet, so a man might not like it. Mint and eucalyptus can cause rashes for some people.”

The first session of the course left me in wonder — I reflected on our senses, how we use them (or not) and how much body and mind are connected, not just in receiving, but in giving.

The instructor kindly lent me and my friend two books to exchange and practice with until we meet again. I took home the “The Power of Touch,” which had a thorough explanation of the different types of essential oils (for calming, soothing tight muscles, warming, balancing or reinvigorating) and was full of visual instructions on how to self-massage and provide healing full-body treatments for others.

The course, which I highly recommend to readers, left me eager for more. The instructor also offers post-training consultations, and perhaps re-takes if need be, if one would like to revisit the technique, which I find very useful.

Skin can be powerful, in how it aches, relaxes, resists, surrenders and relays information about our past, present and deepest fears. I believe that repeated close encounters with it will add more to me than just skill.

Massage expert and reflexologist Gabriele Habashi gives massage treatments, and introductory courses in her center “Horizon” in Zamalek. For more details, and a price list, email her atele@horizon-healing.com. The same centre also offers Reiki “energy healing” training, Trager, which is a bodywork that raises body awareness, in addition to other courses like weight management with a nutritional expert. 

Original article published by Egypt Today Specials can be read here: http://specials.egypttoday.com/wellbeing/massage-the-philosophy-of-touch/

Into the Trenches, Les élus

Reflections on a Revolution …

As I write this, a truce between policemen and protesters has just ended by the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Football ultras, seeking vindication and perhaps vengeance for their 75 friends who needlessly lost their lives a few days back, and their opposite numbers are probably engaged in a grueling night battle where stones, molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters are being pelted. And more physical and proverbial walls are being erected.

It’s Monday now, half an hour after midnight. It was a Wednesday when football ultras were ambushed and slaughtered in Portsaid. A black Wednesday. Another dark day added to the long list.

Black seems to be the color of New Egypt.

An hour earlier tonight, a friend of mine, Zakariya Mohyeldin, started reflecting on another, perhaps bloodier “Black Wednesday” a year earlier, where state-sponsored thugs had attacked unarmed protesters in Tahrir on camel- and horse-back.

My friends would testify to how notorious I am with sharing some of their views. While talking, it’s not abnormal for me to take out my blackberry and start quoting them in tweets. With Ziko, as I and his friends call him, I took it to another level. His reflections were raw, random … It always touches me how people’s memories are selective, and why they choose to say certain things. So I took out my laptop and started typing away. Refreshingly, he didn’t stop me.

When he was done, I asked, “But why are you telling me all this? Why did you feel the need to say that?” He shrugged his shoulders (Ziko doesn’t use many facial expressions, like most men. So I couldn’t read his sentiment), he said, “When I was walking in the square the other day, I saw angry people. But do we share the same anger? I don’t think so. I don’t feel I belong to them, I don’t feel like I support them. Does this make me ‘felool?’ I don’t know. I don’t remember that these were those people I saw during the 18 days, on The Camel Battle day. Maybe I’m wrong. May be they were.”

Zakariya, or Ziko, comes from a family of armymen — sort of. His grandfather, his namesake, was the first head of the General Intelligence Directorate, which he founded, had been reportedly involved in reshaping the state security apparatus, he was a Nasser adviser and he was a Free Army Officer, one of the most prominent and celebrated . His grandson is on the other hand no stranger to anti-military protests. Ironically, Ziko took to the streets to bring down the state security apparatus his own grandfather once helped refine. On his Twitter feed, you’ll find a lot of condemnation of the “3askar.”

But let me halt my editoralizing, this post is about what he said before that last statement, so here’s how it goes:

“The people that I’ve met that day [on Camel’s Battle / Black Wednesday] I may never meet again. Maybe some of them are now in Mohammed Mahmoud, may be not. But these people were the most courageous I’ve ever met. They were not thugs. Even those who were thugs among them were not thugs, if you know what I mean.

I remember how they looked at me when I left the square that day. I was drained. I felt I could either kill someone for real or that I would be killed myself, if I had stayed any longer. [Those I left behind] looked at me, their eyes pleading. “Don’t leave us,” is what I felt they said. That look. They were desperate. I can’t forget it. It wasn’t that they were taking the moral highground or blaming me because I was leaving. Unlike the people now in Mohammed Mahmoud. Maybe.

Everybody fought but no one was expected to. It wasn’t a duty. ‘If you want to help us, come help us. If you can’t, it’s fine.’

The goal was to defend ourselves against a brutal, planned and horrendous attack.

These people [our attackers] were the scum of the Earth, because they had no values or morals at all. They were there to kill us, just because they were told to kill us. They’ll probably kill us. Then go smoke a cigarrette later as if nothing happened.

Those fighting them back [in Tahrir] was such a strange group of people. Their economic background. I don’t know whether they were ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], or ultras … they were just people. Very normal and very good.

Mind you that day wasn’t very positive. But it was … we were the people who went down [to the square]. There was a sense of comarderie and friendship that was undescribable. This Salafi guy came up to me on the day and asked me if I prayed the “thuhr” prayer. I said, “what if I’m christian?” He responded, “go pray, even if you are.” Some people came and asked him to leave, and they stood by me. I don’t know [why I’m telling this story]. These images keep coming to my head. I wanna write about them.

When I left the midan, I was in such an emotional state. I was ashamed. I broke down. It was worse than January 28 for me. I remember that day the phone calls of people asking me not to go to the square. Or telling me they won’t.

The people who were calling me on that day, amid the fighting, were saying things like, “what do you guys want? Didnt you get what you want?” School mates I haven’t talked to in years. My father’s friends. All pleading. But even if I’d wanted to leave, it wasn’t possible. We were in the middle of a battle. You can’t leave a raging battle. To some I used to say, “there are girls here in the square. I’m not leaving while a girl stays.”

On that day, I could have stayed at home in the morning. But when I saw the pro-Mubarak people marching on the square earlier in the day, I decided I wanted to go. Ten minutes after I went down, the clashes started. I was armed with an anti-Mubarak placard, that’s all.

I’m still trying to make sense of that day. Who was there. Who wasn’t. Part of the ikhwan were there, but by the way, part had left in the morning. And returned. I don’t understand why that happened. Was that part of a plan? I mean I’m sure some of those who fought [with us in the Camel Battle] were ikhwan. Or maybe they were normal people.

I asked Ibrahim El Houdaiby [a former brotherhood member, and the grandson of a former Supreme Guide] about the ikhwan. He said, “it’s either they’re not here [in great numbers] or they’re here but not organized.”

There was a friend who would hold me back whenever I got carried away and took part in the violence. “This is not your job,” he would say. “This is not why you’re here.”

For those who fell or got injured from the thugs’ side [our attackers], I felt no sympathy. For moments there, I felt i didn’t care if they were killed. May be it was wrong to feel so. But it felt legitimate to feel that way. We wanted to stay there. And we didn’t want to be killed. It was simple as that. Even if we were killing them, we were still better than them. I don’t know how many died that day.

That said, most of us protected them.

When I was leaving the “midan,” from near the AUC building near Sheikh Reehan street, a army officer decided to search me. I don’t know why he did it. I asked him, why didn’t they move to defend people. He told me, what are we supposed to do? We cant do anything. I argued with him. But it was futile. He stopped talking to me, and continued the search without even looking me in the eyes.

It was very vague. I left after curfew, and as I negotiated my route back home through blocked roads, I was thinking how I understood nothing; who’s doing what, and who’s on our side. In one checkpoint, I saw two guys shirtless in the cold and blindfolded, their hands tied behind their back. It looked like they were beaten hard. I didn’t understand who they are, or why they were beaten. Were they decent? Were they thugs? I never knew.

But it looked ugly.

I continued walking.

I met another solider, in another checkpoint, who asked me, “what has brought you here? it’s dangerous.” I retorted shouting: “You’re a soldier and you’re asking me that?” A higher-ranking officer, an army man, came up to me, pushing me away, screaming at me, “don’t you dare shout at an army soldier.” My friend pulled me away.

I walked on.

Another checkpoint. I was searched again. An officer told me jokingly, “I heard there are women with tight bodices in the square.” He looked at my friend who had long hair, and said, “And you? You probably want a president with long hair like yours.” I told the army soldier, “Look at me, talk to me,” and I told him who my grandfather was. “Of course, he was a respectful man,” he said finally. I tried to explain the situation to him. I told him about fraudulent elections. I told him that my relative was even part of it. And that it was forged. The soldier looked like he was thinking, that he considered it. Or may be he thought I was lying.”

Zakariya stopped talking. Abruptly, just like he started.

As I sat beside him putting all this into shape, in this blog post, Ziko joked, “you drained me.” It was just memories, just words. But I understood what he meant.

Memories carry such a heavy load, when they’re unresolved.

Happy with the fragments I collected, I proceeded to publish, asking him if he still wanted to write about it. “You can, you know, write your own version,” I suggested.

“Well, may be I will,” he said. “But may be by the time I try to put them on paper, the will will vanish. I still don’t know what I want to say.”

“Hmm. What should we call this blogpost?” I asked, sipping on my latte.

“Well, I was gonna call it ‘the angriest day of my life’,” he said. “But I feel this is your piece, more than it is mine, though it has my words.”

Over and out.

Buffers, Les élus

The eternity of forms

Battling intense mood swings and depressive episodes is not easy — and it’s harder when we forget the little things that made us dream and look forward to a better tomorrow. Even worse, we tend to discard and leave behind the small habits that keep us connected to the “now” — which is the more important between the past and the future.

One of my small creations

Recently, I bought a new journal — engraved with a drawing of the Little Prince (my best friend) hanging by small ropes to a flock of birds, taking flight off his tiny planet and into the unknown. A line underneath the drawing reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeax.” The essential is invisible to the eyes.

It’s true. Once I started writing in that journal — after months and months of leaving this habit– I realized that I had the answer all along: I shouldn’t look outside of myself to battle my demons. But perhaps I should look inside, to the things that I already have and thought  I lost, and instead of battling demons, perhaps I should befriend them, even love them. They’ve lived with me for so long, I’m probably their only home. I wouldn’t throw them away.

I’m loyal to strange things.

Writing, and sketching — creating form, ink on paper. Therein lies the magic that perhaps will free me one day. In my first entry, I wrote, “When writing, a person is in the moment, like right now. If you’re focused on getting ink on paper, nothing becomes more important than ink on paper. And within the ink and the words, there’s a certain magic, an incantation and a spell. Am I going crazy? Or is this me finally becoming sane? Finding beauty in the mundane. Or more correctly finding miracles in small things.

Words have a god. And whoever masters words becomes close to this God. If you become a word, the word, you become god. This is the essence of spirituality: becoming infinite inside something. Consigning your soul — this limitless presence– to a single point in space. Points are timeless, or rather not bound by time.”

Self portrait

So are words. And so will you, if you focus so much on the task of producing a word on paper that you disappear in it. Watch the pen move, the ink dispensed, sink into the pores of the paper, grow and stem out into a form that gives meaning, makes sense. Suddenly, the ink takes on new meanings. It becomes alive in the shape that it has created. Iqraa, read it back, breathe in, breathe out, in, out and everything changes. This is the present. Welcome to it.

Words can change the world.

How can this idea not be healing?

Similarly, I tried to re-explore sketching. A beautifully talented Tweep gave me a drawing book, as gift, a week earlier, and I haven’t stopped drawing ever since. And last night, I wasn’t too afraid — as I always were before– to share that bit of myself. So I posted some of these online, and I even changed my Twitter avatar to a self-portrait that I have drawn myself.

Will all this cure my dark episodes? It might. And if not, then it will remain there as testimony to how I tried.

“Nous écrivons des choses eternelles.”

Listening to: Nothing
Mood: Indescribable, hovering in a grey area between happiness and sadness.
Wants from the Universe: Love, love, love and more love. For people, and for things. Mostly, for myself. Because I need that.

Les élus, On the Road, Travel Writing

Cook chicken like a Bedouin — in the heart of the desert!

By Amr Bassiouny
Along The Watchtower Guest Writer 

This is a companion post to Amr’s account of his solo sand adventure where he unveils another side of him. Follow him via @AmrBassiouny

This is a recipe I learned from one of the Bedouins of South Sinai, a kind fellow and a cook named Saleh.

If you’re travelling with a group, cooking a meal from scratch is a fun activity as people take up tasks and sit together, chit-chatting and socializing around the fire. If you’re alone, it’s still a good way to pass the time and hone up your cooking skills. As you finish and garnish the meal in the open, under the sun or stars, with minimum resources, a sense of accomplishment is sure to follow.

This is what you’ll need to get this meal done: Large potatoes, tomatoes, onions and chicken cut in quarters. You can add pepper, salt and cumin to add some taste as well as any other herbs or spices to suit your own taste. All the ingredients in this meal contribute to the cooking process, as the chicken contains fats/oils while the tomatoes, potatoes and onions contain water, and all the natural juices will mix and steam the chicken into tenderness. The juiciest ingredients are placed closest to the foil (tomatoes), as they will be the least damaged if burnt. Whenever you’re out in the desert cooking remember: Tomatoes = water. You can cook a whole pot of dry rice with just a few tomatoes.

1. Light a fire, burn as much wood as necessary at first to create as much coal as necessary.

2. Lay the foil flat on the ground, be sure to keep it clean of any sand.

3. Slice the tomatoes and onions in 1.5cm thick slices sideways in order to get the widest cut possible, while doing the same for the potatoes cutting them in a way to give the largest surface area.

4. Lay the tomato slices side by side, place the potato slices on top of the tomatoes, then the onion slices on top of the potatoes, and the chicken finally on top. Keep them neat in rows and just wide/long enough to be covering the chicken. Also, cut the tomatoes on the foil NOT in a different plate to avoid losing any of the water inside.

5. Next step is to cover the top of the chicken in the opposite order, first putting onions, then potatoes then tomatoes, and then sprinkle the spices/herbs on top.

6. Extend the foil on top of the dish, and wrap it in 2-3 layers while constantly tightening the sides in order to create a rectangular shaped wrap with the sides tightly closed. If it’s not tightly wrapped then you will lose the moisture and it won’t cook as well or be as tender and tasty.

Saleh, the Bedu, showing off his cooked chicken meal -- Sinai

7. Be sure not to put more than two chicken quarters at a time in each foil wrap, or else it will get too bulky and possibly break the layers of thin foil when you move it.

8. Put the fire out, place any unburnt wood on the side and keep the hot coal all together and flatten the coals out to create a little bed for the meal.

9. Place your meal on the coal and don’t touch it for 45 minutes, then carefully flip it over and leave it for another 45 minutes. It should take an overall 60-90 minutes depending on the heat of the coal.

10. Once the time is up, open up the foil and dig in! You don’t need plates or forks/knives, it’s best eaten with bare hands straight out of the foil.

Feel free to share this post on Twitter using the hashtags #travel and/or #Come2Egypt and mentioning @AmrBassiouny and/or @ME_Traveller

On the Road, Travel Writing

One more solo adventure?

By Amr Bassiouny
Along the Watchtower Guest Writer

Amr is a dear friend, a revolutionary (by night) and a traveller who believes in the Bedouin traditions, the power of vast deserts, and in talking to fire and the stars (even if he’s too macho to admit it). This is a post he has written several months ago, but was obviously too lazy to publish. I decided to enterprise and steal it for my blog — it’s a thorough meditation on solo desert travel with loads of useful tips, and a personal touch. It also makes my blog look nice. The post makes a reference to Bandora, an extremely feisty Wrangler that has decided to take a different path than Amr’s (Don’t worry, he’s now got himself a black Hillux beast in place of it). Follow him on #Twitter via @AmrBassiouny.

Let’s say you decide to be a badass one day, and instead of driving 150km on road to reach Fayyoum from Cairo, you think 35km through the desert would be a lot more interesting. The only thing that separates you from the fresh waters and ancient history of Fayyoum is a series of cliffs extending for over 100km in length and 10km in width, and there’s no clear way through. It doesn’t matter though, it’s an adventure, and you’re on your own.

As I looked around the deserts surrounding Cairo on Google Earth, I found a group of sand dunes about 70km West of Cairo, starting just north of the Wahat Road. These are the Qataneyya Dunes. The whole affair looked easy and straightforward, possibly a good place to check out. I started looking around a little more and realized the whole area is relatively flat and the sand is soft, which isn’t too fun for long because if the wind picks up I’ll have a combination of soft sand and scorching sun (no mountains = no shade!) making any prolonged stay quite uncomfortable (not to mention getting sand in all my food). So I started looking around for mountains nearby. My attention went south, and I found a long range of cliffs extending about 100km, and beyond those cliffs is the beautiful Fayyoum area.

That would make things a little more interesting than just a set of dunes, I thought.

The following plan started brewing in my mind: I will take off early from Cairo, head along the Wahat road, breaking off north to Qataneyya to arrive just past noon. There, I’ll have some fun and check out the area and then head back south to meet up with the asphalt one more time before 4pm, I thought. Then I can just cross the road, and head further south off-road and make my way past what seems to be a 13km stretch of open desert, a fairly easy cliff or two, then I should arrive at a group of lakes, old whale fossils and who knows what else I could run into. I also decided that if it gets late along the way, I’ll just camp out along the cliffs then head off to Fayyoum the next morning.

No matter how fearless my thoughts were at the time though, deep inside I was still worried. I was going to do all this alone, with no more than a cheap Nokia phone that has GPS and a free promotional compass I got when buying outdoor supplies. I didn’t even have a phone charger in case the battery ran out. Also, as well-maintained as my car may be, it’s still a 17-year-old model, and you never know what might go wrong.

The solution I reached was easy: I packed plenty of extra bread and a lot of Halawa (sugar-infused sesame paste) just in case I had to walk my way back, as well as a good 12 litres of water.

I left my house late at noon, much later than planned, so I decided to save some time in the city by purposely taking a U-turn in the wrong direction along the Haram street. But police stopped me, took my license and car registration. I had to do some haggling and ended up paying an LE400 “fine” instead of a full 1,200LE fine at the police station which would’ve ruined my trip (the perk? I saved 800LE!). Leaving the policeman behind me, I took a deep breath and I told myself, as I always did in these situations, to “keep calm and carry on.”

I arrived to the spot where I needed to go off-road to Qataneyya without any more incidents, but it was already 3pm by then. Off the road I went. The dunes were beautiful, albeit spotted with plastic bags and trash thrown around everywhere which ruined the semblance of remoteness it exuded. In addition, the garbage attracted insects. When I arrived, there were a few groups of Egyptians spread out along the dunes, playing with rented ATVs and dirt bikes, waving as I drove by. I played around with my car as well going up and down the dunes (and getting stuck on top of one of them, wasting a good 20 minutes digging myself out).

At about 4pm I was back to the road as planned, and went across heading south with the thought of lakes on my mind. I drove along the smooth sand at 80-100km/h with the cool wind blowing against my face. I kept driving for about 10km, until I ran into the cliff-face.

Amr's camping spot among the golden sands of the Fayyum

One thing I realized standing there was that a series of cliffs 100km in width and 10km in length looked like a significantly more serious hurdle in real life than they did on Google Earth. There was a heavily used dirt road going parallel the cliff face, mainly used by trucks (most probably for mines nearby) so I decided to follow it until I found a safe way to cross down.

About 5km later through fairly rough terrain, I found a smooth way down. By then it was already sunset, and there was a beautiful spot to camp out at, I stopped there and decided I would continue for the city of Fayyoum in the morning. That was possibly one of the best decisions I made to this day, since what was coming the day after might be far more complicated and dangerous than a 10km drive through a few pretty cliffs. Something that I learned through experience is to never drive after the sun has gone down if you don’t already know the road well, even if there’s still light.

Keeping true to what I learnt from the Bedouins, I never used a tent, and it was my first time to use a sleeping bag. I normally keep a couple of Kleem carpets in my car that I lay on the ground to sit/lie on, and then one or two blankets to wrap myself in just to stay warm and keep any insects/rats/snakes/scorpions from crawling in. Pillows are nice but optional. Tents are a complete waste of space in my opinion (apologies for all the tent-lovers!), you might as well bring an inflatable bed and a teddy bear to cuddle up with.

Nothing beats waking up in the middle of the night and seeing nothing but a sky full of stars then dozing off again to that serenely beautiful view.

The night was amazing but perhaps in equal proportion to its beauty was its freezing cold. The stars were out like never before and the moon was out of sight.

I had become accustomed to following the basic order of things to do when I settle down temporarily in the desert. Set the carpet, light a small fire, then put the teapot against the hot coal and flames to let the fire take it to a boil. Add tea, sugar, measuring quantities by the handful rather than using a spoon. Take a break, drink the tea, have a smoke, relax.

As I started preparing my dinner, I smiled as I remembered my bedouin friend Saleh, a fine cook from El Muzeinah tribe in Southern Sinai, and the first to teach me how to prepare a meal without oil, water, fuel or even ready-packed coal.

“Kollo Tabi’i” as he always said, meaning “everything is natural.” Owing to the bedouin traditions, which I value deeply, I allow myself only the bare essentials, a match box and some wood. If I wasn’t in a completely unknown area, even bringing wood from the city would be unnecessary.

After eating and drinking, I laid down to rest.

The blanket of darkness and deafening silence could carry with them a threat of hidden dangers for many travellers, although in reality they are nothing less than assurances of safety and comfort.

There are two dangers one may face in the desert, pillaging Bedouins familiar with the surroundings or creeping animals. Humans cannot see you in the darkness, and this provides safety even if you are in a completely open area. The complete silence on the other hand allows a person to hear the faintest move in the grains of sand around the camp area, setting an alarm in case any wildlife is coming closer.

As morning came, another fire was lit to make breakfast and tea. Fava beans (Fuul), halawa, cheese and bread satisfied my appetite beautifully. And since I travel lightly, in no time, all was packed, and I was well on my way.

The impassable cliff

I drove south for about 10 minutes before I found myself facing another cliff, unable to find my way down — an early hurdle on the road but it wasn’t a big deal. I had to drive along the new cliff face again for a while until I found a clear way down. Another 10 minutes of driving south and there was another cliff, and then another, and another. After about 30 minutes of driving in a zig-zag pattern it started to feel like I was lost. Just south of where I was lied Fayyoum and north was the road. But how to get to either one of those through the labyrinth of cliffs I just got stuck in between was unclear. I started becoming rather worried and suspected I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. Moreover, the fact that my phone battery had just died and I had no more GPS didn’t help.

At one point, I couldn’t find my way down a cliff, and there were barely any tire marks which meant the area was rarely visited by others, hence if I am lost there I won’t have any luck getting the attention of any passersby for a long time.

I had to crush my ego and accept defeat. The cliff won, I couldn’t make it through! Or more correctly, I was too scared to keep trying; if I fail repeatedly I may have to walk my way to Fayyoum instead. I had to find my way back, and once again the relaxing mantra I use to reassure myself came back to me “keep calm and carry on.”

How do I get back now? Where did I come in from? I had no idea, but I had one thing, my tire tracks. I followed my car’s tire-print back for a long time, feeling more confident as I got past one familiar sight after the next.

Once I reached the top of the cliff, I had to follow the heavily used dirt road again east until a certain point where I would turn north to reach the road. At times there were so many other tire tracks I’d have to stop, get out, spend some time comparing tracks until I recognized mine in order to be sure I didn’t miss a turn.

With a little bit of luck and a lot of concentration, I got out. I drove back to Qataneyya to spend the rest of the day just to feel I didn’t fail completely. I drove up to the highest dune I could find, made myself some chicken soup and enjoyed the view until I packed up and went home.

Lessons learned: Always have a phone/GPS charger in the car, never underestimate a series of cliffs and don’t go exploring alone again thinking Google Earth will be enough to help you make informed decisions. It’s the desert. It will always win.

Warning: NEVER drive into the desert in only one car, and if there is no other option than going out in one car, be sure to have at least one other experienced person with you. NEVER drive into the desert unless you have been to the same place through the exact same road at least 3-4 times before. ALWAYS let somebody know exactly where you’ll be and when they should start worrying.

Feel free to share this post on Twitter using the hashtags #travel and/or #Come2Egypt and mentioning @AmrBassiouny and/or @ME_Traveller

On the Road, Travel Writing

Into the Petrified Forest (not the one in Hogwarts)

Download the PDF version of this story with pictures here: The Petrified Forest – pdf

In this city, sometimes I feel like I’m watching people through a giant fish tank, one that I’m trapped in. Through the glass, I can see their lips move but I can’t hear a word. Other times, I feel like a solid object floating in a sea of noise — an incessant chatter. And I could hear neither my soul nor God. The universe is closed to me.

The Bedu, those who roam and wander in the desert (and we all know thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost”), are very silent people. When I meet some of them in journeys that go into the depth of the Sahara (Arabic for desert), I always regard their “silence” with a mix of envy, reverence and dread — the latter resurfaces when I remember my own episodes of silence. It’s not easy, sometimes, to be alone with your thoughts. We have also been conditioned to associate silence with loneliness, waiting — and worst of all– with separateness.

A pot of hot red tea mixed with "marmariya" herbs

Silence is a presence, and on that day less than a month earlier, I felt I craved it.

I was at a rowdy party with some friends, including a young avid traveller who takes frequent sojourns with his ghosts into the desert, when the notion of going away popped up. It began with the both of us saying that we miss the desert. “Do you want to go now?” He suggested. “Right now?” I asked, with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. We managed to find two other friends who would join on the spot, and a couple of hours later, we were heading to the nearest strip of desert in the vicinity of the Greater Cairo: The Petrified Forest.

It was a small spur-of-the-moment decision, and all we needed was an able 4X4, which my friend owned, some food, drinks and enough water. One of us had an iPhone to track our route once we’re on sand, and the friend with the car provided jackets for everyone. His car already carried a blanket, a head-torch and two carpets. A matchbox to light a fire using wood from the small ‘desert’ was all we needed.

Mind you, we were not all dressed for it — but this turned out to be one of the fondest memories of this small adventure.

In ‘V for Vendetta’, both the Graphic novel and the movie adaptation, there’s a scene where V’s girl Evey Hammond –played by Natalie Portman in the movie– ventures out on a balcony after a horrifying albeit liberating episode in her life. Under the pouring rain, Evey stretches her arms, soaking wet, and announces, “God is in the rain.”

I pondered.

God is in the darkness, I thought as my friend maneuvered traffic in Cairo with his bulky Wrangler, the music of Dream Theatre emanating from the vehicle’s stereo.

No, I corrected myself moments later, he’s in the singularity which encapsulates both the darkness and light, and all the opposites, the feminine and the masculine, space and sea, Yin and Yang, good and evil. He’s in the silence. And the silence is Him. Whoever is your God — even if it’s yourself– you’ll find Him in the desert, the silent womb that hides us from the world when it becomes too mundane, too un-God-like … too loud.

We were soon driving through the ‘circular road’ (al-da’ery) heading to what is crudely known in English as The Fifth Settlement or al-Tagamu al-Khamis, which the Petrified Forest is near. The ‘forest’ itself is a small protectorate surrounded in the distance by gated communities and some roads. But some parts of the forest are less elevated than others, drowned between small hills, so they hide any sign of civilization from view, including the nearby dirt roads.

The area is void of any flora or fauna — but insects and small snakes, and perhaps fennec foxes, have made appearances to visitors of this area. There are of course petrified trees, which the forest is named for — and if you are lucky, like my friend, you can find an ancient log of wood which you can carry or pocket (depending on its size) for keepsake.

Entering into the forest was a bit tricky, since the strip of desert was surrounded by small hills of rock. We scoured for a suitable entrance for a few minutes, driving along the stretch of sands on both sides of the road, before we found a small passage (for those of you who would like to visit. These are the coordinates of the entrance: 29°59’22.33″N  31°28’6.58″E. Use Google Earth). We were solo, and getting stuck alone was something we tried to avoid — our friend who was driving was confident he could press past a rather nasty-looking pile of rocky sand, very well near the entrance, which was what stood between us and the desert ahead.

But of course, the desert mocks in its own peculiar ways, and we were soon stuck, a minute later actually. Mind you, we left the party back in the heart of Cairo and went straight to the desert — without changing. So you can imagine how out of place I might have looked in that barren area, digging out sand from beneath the tires, in my short dress, coat, and ballet shoes, pushing and shoving rocks, along with others, and trying desperately not to make a hole in my favorite pair of pantyhose or chip off my fiery red nail varnish.

Four people, and it took us around 20 minutes to get unstuck, the last five of which, we were pushing the feisty vehicle like there was no tomorrow. Then again, the remote area near the suburbs of Cairo is infamous for thieves and pillagers, and we didn’t want to catch their attention so close to the road — where only a dull-looking tractor passed in the time it took us to release the car.

But the God who lived in the silence of deserts was generous, and we merged our wills with His, and after a thrust of force, the car moved past this spot reeling into the desert, its engine roaring triumphantly. Cheers and high-fives followed — the stress we all seemed to mask so well while we wondered minutes earlier “What if we can’t get out of this?” was released from bondage, and we were laughing with relief again.

Two kilometers in, we chose a nice spot to set camp — the flatest ground we could find– since sitting near a small hill or rocky pile meant insects and creeping lizards could pop out. One of our friends kept insisting that the area had ‘vipers’ — not a good thought when you’re already there. We soon brushed off the image of ‘vipers’ from our heads, instead diverting our attention to making a bonfire. We used wood from the area. We started brewing aromatic tea with “marmariya” from Sinai — its smell bringing sweet peace to our small gathering. The stars twinkled above, and the silence was … beautiful.

Nearing dawn, a fog started to creep in. So did the cold. I pulled a blanket tightly around me and was soon lost in thought.

A fog tip-toeing from all directions was a different sight in the desert — the white clouds created a surreal dreamy atmosphere as it hugged us and concealed everything else from view. At this point, we were all huddling in a small circle around a dying fire. The friend –the traveller– was struggling to keep the burning timber alight. He had once told me he liked looking at the light of fire. And it looked like, as he turned the wood, blew at the flames, and just watched it grow, that this was his form of meditation.

Bouts of silence punctuated the quiet chatter, and the stillness was a field of energy in its own right.

The desert, and its elements, teach you to love your mind, I thought. But you have to hate it first. You have to endure its venom, before you learn to forgive it. Unlike the heart, it’s the only piece of us that feels like someone else’s — like a different person. Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote that, “one must have ruined oneself for generations keeping a crumbling chateau in repair before one learns to love it.” My mind is this crumbling chateau, and in those hours, when I’m blessed with a friendly encounter with stillness, is when the repair takes place. I tell my thoughts I forgive them, and I love my ghosts, like Saint-Ex, “with the only love that matters.”

At some point, looking at the fog (or failing to look through it) as we sat in its stomach, I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, God was in the fog after all. Or maybe like religions profess, he’s everywhere — and the fog is his hand, reaching out.

Listening to: Radio in the a.m.
Useful tip: this trip can be made in Wadi Degla, however the gate closes at 5:00 pm there
Wants from the Universe: more travel, more stillness, more inspiration, Love and Light, as always. Friends.

Buffers

A meditation on time, the ‘great illusion’

Time is at its most beautiful when you’re spending it in the arms of your special person, or lying on your back, on the grass or sand, early in the evening watching the stars twinkle into being as you whisper sweet nothings into the ears of your loved one — your fingers interlocked.

Relativity: For observers, this kiss may have lasted 20 seconds. For the lovers, it might have felt like a day.

At those times, the hand of the clock may tick a wee bit faster as if rushing to deprive you of the moment’s bliss — or to make it memorable precisely for its fleetingness. At others, it winks at you, skips a second or two between tick-tocks and with that simple effortless gesture restores your faith in heaven, earth and everything in between.

In good times, you’re seemingly whisked away to a different dimension where the newtonian laws of physics don’t apply — and they don’t! It’s at those very moments that you’re willing to swear -in court as a primary witness if need be- that time can never be absolute. It’s completely, and utterly and deliciously relative, you’d say, wearing a wide sheepish grin on your face.

When you’re hearing bad news, time behaves differently and the three dimensions of space may disappear. You become time. You’re the moment. A point or a straight line extending into eternity — depending on how your mind reacts to bereavement. In this case, time is also relative. It always is, was, always will be in that moment.

Memory, not just the clock, plays with that relativity, stretching into ages time during recollection, or condensing and fuzzing it into non-existence as it wears off. Dreams have this talent, making a few seconds of REM sleep last a century in our heads.

It’s so playful, Time, that you almost feel that you can manipulate it yourself, that you can make it stop, or perhaps you may one day find a way to rewind it. In times of regret, when you feel you’re willing to give away your left arm to undo a past mistake … or say a word … or unsay it, this feeling is most profound.

Our experience of time renders it the most magical of all elements that govern our existence.

Modern physics tells us that directions in time, forward and backward, are treated by the same laws. However, the arrow of time mysteriously keeps moving in one direction, forward, as you may have observed. I was recently reading a book by physicist and mathematician Brian Greene, called the Fabric of the Cosmos, which explored in part this question and showcased theories explaining the ‘one-way arrow of experiential time.’ Some of those theories I understood and others have taught me that perhaps at 29 I’m too old to re-learn physics. Nevertheless, the puzzling nature of time has sent my mind wandering.

Time: Does it sometimes bend over backwards to please?

Can we erase the past? Or at least can we reshape it -repaint it if you will- as we do with the future. Well, the Quantum eraser experiment hints at it, albeit subtly. How? In layman’s terms — which quite honestly are the only terms I fully grasp– this can be done by doing the closest thing to eliminating the past: erasing its impact on the present.

If we –like Scully and Druhl of this experiment– find a way to make the history leading to where we are, now, at this point in time, unknowable or say irrelevant (that no one version of history leading to this point can be singled out), then the path that led us here becomes one of many potentialities, and those can be erased. In turn, as humans we can focus more on the present moment, because this is what’s existent now, and move on.

Am I being painfully philosophical? Of course! We all know, this is not how memory works. But for a second, if we pretend we are photons fired at slits, it may work. Minds can be manipulated too. Take a for instance …

Say I –let’s call me Laila– am an Egyptian ballet dancer, living alone in Cairo, watching Star Trek the original series at 6:00 am since sleep is eluding me, hair is tied up in a dull bun, eyes are bloodshot from lack of rest and hysterical crying, a large bowl of popcorn that I’m munching at rests on my thighs making me feel guilty and fat though I barely weigh 43 kilos.

Now, imagine my story is as such: I’ve just moved out of my parent’s apartment following a huge fight. I was also dumped by my boyfriend of two years (a thing I blamed my parents for). I have very few friends in Cairo to turn to, since I spent the first 20 years of my life abroad (my dad’s an ambassador), and I’m taking out all my misery on myself by binge eating and masochistically watching a TV show that my ex-boyfriend loved and I passionately hated. His favorite character was Spock. So every time Nimoy utters a word on screen, I break down in tears. I’m alone and single with no one to console me.

Now consider this scenario. I’m awake at 6:00 am, because I just dropped off my boyfriend at the airport. He’s off to Oxford for two years to read Geography, and that’s why I’ve been crying. My work schedule and my budget don’t allow for frequent travels, I will not see him for long, and we kind of agreed to break off our relationship since we both know long-distance doesn’t work. My parents are living with my brother in Canada, and I’ve cut off most of my friends when I started dating (stupid me!) That’s why I have no one to turn to. I decided to watch Star Trek because I’m secretly a nerd, and my boyfriend hated it (and judged me for it) so now that’s he’s gone, I felt free to watch Spock all I want, in an effort to cheer myself up. But the act only reminded me that my boy is not there. I’m alone and single with no one to console me.

Or perhaps, I’m awake at 6:00 am because I had an awful performance the night before, and I fell several times on stage. I’m depressed. My trainer gave me an earful, and my friends -instead of being supportive- giggled when I messed up. At that moment, at 6:00 am, I reminded myself that I don’t even have a man whose shoulders I could cry on. I have never been in a long-term relationship to begin with. I cry more. I’m watching Star Trek because it seems to be the only thing on TV, besides Bollywood ‘classics’ (satellite signals are scrambled so most channels are on the blink). The sets for that show are primitive and laughable, at best, so I’m not amused. This pointed-eared alien with two skewed lines for eyebrows is particularly getting on my nerves. I’m alone and single with no one to console me.

So in a way whatever circumstances led to that moment in time at 6:00 am for Laila become irrelevant if we erase or choose to ignore their impact on the present.

There may be many possible reasons why this girl is crying. Nothing in the past changes the fact that she is now. And that in the future she will stop.

Bear with me. If we forget (or pretend to forget) what led to that moment, it’s easier to isolate the moment, realize it could be a product of many possibilities, focus on the present and make nice projections for the future. If the past can be seen from this point of view, the boyfriend or the lack thereof wouldn’t matter at 6:00 am when I’m, Laila, alone and unconsolable. Since his past presence or the lack thereof –as illustrated in these three scenarios- most probably won’t change the situation now, for Laila, at 6:00 am.

Therefore, I have no choice (across the three scenarios) but to deal with the present moment (it’s the only thing I’ve got whatever preceded it), stop blaming the past (since many potential ‘pasts’ may have led to this point anyway), and get a grip and pull myself together — and perhaps put aside the popcorn and make a healthy salad.

This way, I have not only exercised control over the present moment, but also the past and the future — in a way reshaping them. And  may be this is what life should be about: creating paths, and if they don’t work, starting from the ‘now’ and considering the past only a mere possibility of many.

Changing trajectories, constantly. At every nasty turn.

To be honest, Time, and how it manipulates us and us it, has been on my mind lately — especially when I started reading about ‘energy work.’ But how Time plays out in the spiritual and holistic realm is perhaps a subject fit for another post.

I recently wrote in a letter to a friend that “time is magic.” I told the friend to repeat this like a mantra.

Time is magic.

“Time is magic,” I wrote. “It moves forward, it waits for no one, it bores us, it tricks us, it eludes us. It’s relative. It’s an illusion. It’s there, and it’s not. It’s linear. It’s circular. It slows down and builds up speed (read Einstein!). But it also heals and it makes everyone forget, and as it passes, makes the past look so small, so insignificant, so miniature and almost non-existent that sometimes we laugh at how much we thought it was important.”

Magic, I tell you. And I’m starting to believe that may be we can all learn a trick or two — fulfill that ancient dream, play with it, make it collapse or roll it backwards.

The short version of my 1700-words meditation is? Well … that time stops at moments and sometimes, it flies.

Listening to: One of my kitties playing ball with a piece of rolled-up foil.
Mood/State: Insatiable, slightly irritable, plagued with thought.
Wants from the Universe: More dreamy and deliciously slow time when I’m with special people and loved ones.
Existential question of the day: Are we human, or are we particle? (Blame ‘The Killers’)
Interesting find: This link and the question it poses — Can humans have a wave-length? There’s an experiment to prove it, if you have two cats, a devise that erases which-path information, a detecting screen, and some time on your hands, about the age of the universe take or give a few years … it’s doable!

Fluff

Apologies …

… for falling off the grid recently. I have no excuse. But I must confess I have been turning more to writing letters to beings above and on the Earth, some of them dear friends, others are gods, and this has distracted me from the Watchtower (i.e. this blog). I promise to be less sporadic and more prolific. And in the course of the next few days, I will collect some material from personal emails, and anecdotes from trips to the desert, and turn them into proper posts that I can share.

Thank you for reading, and happy 2011. Two-thousand-and-Ten was nothing short of dreamy and beautiful, despite loss, deep pains and a set of troubles. It has taught me much. I have learned that the desert casts enchanting spells on gullible travelers, that words can break your bones if you let them, people can move on but sometimes they don’t, love is just around the corner but only if you’re ready, personalities (and body weight) are not set in stone and both can be lost for the good, friendships can be resurrected, fears squished and buried deep, that some bridges need to be burned to the ground, a listening ear is precious, that the past no matter how pretty can get boring, karma works, some hurts persist, the Universe listens, authority figures are always flawed, the essential is invisible to the eye and that you become responsible forever for what you tame. And oh, fennec foxes can get too friendly — but that was just plain fun to learn.

For 2011, I have decided that this Calvin Coolidge quote is my new year’s resolution: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Listening to: Songs from a time well past and gone
Mood: Hopeful
Wants from the Universe: Strength. And the courage to feel and act upon intuition and feeling. Love. Light. To hear the voice of God. The door that opens when others are closed. Peace of mind. More helpful hands for my projects. More luck. Also, and while we’re at it, an iPad and a Kindle.

Buffers, Les élus, Travel Writing

I turn my hourglass …

… and lose myself in thought about the journeys we make.

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love –a book which I was fiercely cynical of until I started leafing through and relating to the author Elizabeth Gilbert– I wondered about my own personal journey.

During a ride back from a festival in Wadi El Gemal, down south, I began a brief conversation (more like a monologue where I was reciting the lines) with a travel companion, one which later continued on in my head, about the nature of travel, and the kind of people it attracts. I came later to the loose conclusion that the people who travel cannot be classified, simply because everyone does — in one way or another. Gilbert traveled to forget a man, to connect with God, to eat and to find love. Others do it to escape war, death or poverty. Some do it to bring those three on others.

We travel, therefore we are.

I thought of my own journeys in the now aged 2010. The Cairo-to-Shalateen trip was about the conflict near the borders with Sudan, the mystery of tribes I have not met and the companionship on that trip — I was curious, not about destination per se, but the prospect of discovering myself in the process of talking to people and seeing a place that, as me and my co-writer have put it, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps, on some level, I related to Shalateen’s demise and innocence. On another I related to the journey — to the idea of crossing points on a map but not stopping on each for too long; the “not belonging” feel of a roadtrip was part of its magic. All the better, I didn’t feel the need to belong anywhere.

On my return to this spot earlier this month where the tribes of Beja (now more familiar to me) lived, I confess, part of it was about tasting again that bitter sweet Jabana coffee made with ginger, seated on the ground, in wadis between the mountains. It was also an exercise in familiarity, or rather the flaunting of it. The pride of feeling or saying that “yes, yes, I’ve been here before. I know the laws, and the dances, and the coffee — I even have my own Jabana set.”

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

Recently, a friend talked about a “treasure hunt” he had done with the Bedouins using a metal detector in the Sinai desert. The prospect immediately fired me up, and suddenly Sinai was not just a place to observe the mountains as they hug the sea, but a place perhaps to explore and search for hidden things. If he keeps his promise and takes me with him to hunt for shiny metals, it won’t be for destination –like always– but the very, very small and rare possibility of finding something precious beneath the sands. And it’s more about the process of finding, the hunt if you will, than the object sought.

Same with the desire to explore the Gilf, that stretch of remote land elevated over a plateau whose name means “The Great Barrier” and who’s been enchanting travelers like Lazlo Almasy and Mohammed Hassanein with tales of lost armies and a dried oasis hidden from our eyes. For me, it’s about the caves that have yet to be discovered, not the ones that already are. It’s also about the silence — another reason I go to places. I search for it in the hope that the silence without will create a silence within, that the gibbering voices in my head will finally decide to let go and move out.

Am I the kind of traveler who wants to stumble into places, get to know the culture and people, eat local food and take pictures of temples and revered walls? No. At least not at this stage.

A new travel idea I’m developing — a rather personal and private one which, surprisingly, I’m willing to share — is to go to Munich, where my father lived for six years as a young man. There, he knew a woman, who I believe was his first love (a very unfounded conclusion reached after listening to accounts and snippets of stories from aunts and uncles who recite them like family lore and profess knowledge that I think is beyond them, but nevertheless find entertaining).

My father (on the right, black shirt) in 70's Munich

I heard of letters (whose fate is unknown), and the investigator inside of me wants to find those letters, track down the woman in Munich and meet her — it’s a small journey inside the mind of my own father, as it is inside the city which shaped a lot of his beliefs and world-views. Needless to say, my father doesn’t get personal with me, and he would probably go berserk if he knew I’d want to go on such a privacy-inflitrating personal assignment (especially that I ritualistically lecture my parents on respect for privacy and the need for space even within a small, tight family).

It’s such an offensive on privacy, I know, to sift through someone else’s decades-old secrets.

But my nose-poking and shameless prodding is justified by one thing; I feel that my father’s history is also a part of mine. In a way, it’s part of my heritage. And yes, that includes his secrets. Even the ones that he doesn’t care about anymore. And perhaps his own father’s secrets, if I knew of a way where I could ever come to those.

It’s a flimsy argument, very shaky. And I might not even find those letters with the 35-plus-year-old-address of a woman, who might have moved out of the country, changed her name or gender, or died. It also carries the prospect of not hearing anything from anyone, having a door slammed violently in my face or ending up meeting an over-weight, foul-mouthed German who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t recognize my father’s name. The city itself has been reshaped over the years — perhaps it gained weight too, or lost it, in a manner of speaking. The Munich that my father loved is no more, and that “thing”, that needle in a haystack, which has made up a part of his inner him, may be lost even on a passion-filled, genuinely enthused, ever-optimistic seeker like myself.

My father as a young man, with his camera. He wrote letters too.

But this remains a small travel fantasy, that has nothing to do with “discovering a new place” or “flying by the seat of my pants.” Perhaps the fact that I blow its cover here, and talk about something personal to me and my father, has more to do with wanting something about my father to be exposed to the world — something that may stay on after the two of us are gone, and would keep us both alive. Perhaps it’s for my future kids, or his grandchildren. Here is something about your grand-dad, his story. The storyteller in me wanted something about him to be out there, something personal, a testimony to his presence.

“Here’s a man who loved and lived” kind of thing. “And this man is my father.”

In Wadi El Gemal, I listened to this astronomy session beneath the stars (one which helped me know where the direction of Mecca is at night for the following two days, and which works well when you want to boast about basic knowledge of star alignment to strangers). I looked up at the stars, and I wondered whether I travel because I can’t commit. My temperament is ever changing — this has been my constant– and so are my ideas. I wonder if the idea of “home” is one of them. I wonder if curiosity about new places, is actually a search for something else entirely, perhaps for a certain brand of commitment.

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

But I don’t know yet what makes them so.

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

Some time has passed since I began my musings. I turn the hourglass.

Listening to: Girl, the Beatles
Favorite bit: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story … All about the girl who came to stay? … She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Mood: Happy and hopeful, perhaps without reason.
Wants from the Universe: Travel with purpose, with love.

Buffers, Les élus

Do girls forget love easily?

At least three people I know got married or got into committed relationships less than six months of their break-up with ex-boyfriends. A friend seemed to find this surprising. I, on the other hand, think it’s natural since time in some relationships and their aftermath is an irrelevant element.

A girl just wants to feel loved

Do girls forget easy? Do they move on faster than their male counterparts? I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. The right one is: How much time and emotions did the girl invest before realizing she’s hit a brick wall and that she has to turn back? The answer is crucial. Because once that brick wall, that barrier against passion and emotions, is reached, there’s no point in remembering or forgetting. It just is and the girl accepts and turns her back to the one she loves.

A person close to me told me of an old love story. Of an ex-fiance’. For two years, she held on, fighting for him inside her heart despite flaws, enduring blow after blow to the extent that the man thought she’d never leave, no matter what he’d do. He can get away with anything, he thought. He even tried to make her jealous by flirting heavily with other women, or flaunting his female friendships in front of her. And she’d still accepted him. Until one day, she sent a long letter saying she’s leaving the relationship, sending her engagement band in the same envelope as the letter (that was around 40 years ago, mind you!). He laughed, and called it a bluff. It turns out it wasn’t. More than thirty years later, he confessed to close ones he always regretted taking her for granted, that he never forgot her and that she’d stayed in his heart ever since. He even said he often dreamt about her. Back then, numerous attempts to make her take him back failed — she didn’t even read the tens of letters he sent. They were thrown away unread. She had sworn to herself that he’d never see her face again, and he didn’t for many years.

So why does this happen?

Simply because a girl gives her all before she decides to give up. I’ve read that women are often reluctant to end a relationship even if they’re more miserable than their men. So they try to fix it. Once. Twice. Numerous times. But at a certain moment it reveals itself as “un-fixable” and there’s no way but out.

And “feelings” are also irrelevant in this affair.

It’s a Eureka moment; a sudden discovery that you’ve done your part, compromised, explained, left no path untaken, cried your eyes off, pleaded and implored, swallowed the pain, and there’s nothing else to be done. There’s no energy for more, even if you want to give more. Your resources are depleted, and you’re filled with peace — this peace that comes with letting go.

So the girl lets go, walks back slowly and smiles to herself because she’s at least tried. There are no regrets, just a calm serenity.

And moving on, a day later or 6 months on (it’s all the same), and accepting love from someone else becomes easy (and much needed), since at this stage, the girl is hungry for love and affection. And part of the beauty of love is having it returned — by both words and action.

It’s a simple fact, but men seem to ignore it: Many a girl loves a guy because he’s nice to her, not because he’s drop-dead gorgeous, a rock star or a rocket scientist (it’s about her, partly, not just him). She loves him because he makes her feel beautiful, without make up, on a bad hair day, even when her nose is red and her eyes are full of tears, even when she’s weary and tired and not in the mood, even when she’s gained a few pounds for whatever reasons, even when she’s stopped feeling it herself. And it has nothing to do with empty compliments, but very, very small things that make a huge difference.

Fights, even small ones, let-downs and bickering, and accumulations of “the small stuff,” can bring one down, and eventually take the relationship south, no matter how big the love is.

Here’s another fact: Love is not enough. We stay with others, because they have a capacity to always make us feel good about ourselves. When this stops happening, more often than not, we ride into the sunset. Without looking back.

Listening to: beautiful silence
Mood: contemplative
Wants from the Universe:  A man who treats me well, and makes me feel loved … who will also make me laugh and bring a smile to my face when I’m down. One who tells me I’m beautiful. One who says he’ll be there and keeps the promise.

Les élus, Travel Writing

Why do we travel – The complete series

The need to travel is mysterious

With the help of a friend, I have suggested and conceptualized a travel series for Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English portal, where I’m currently travel editor, that explores the question of why people travel. Inspired by two similar articles in Salon.com and The Observer, the series was launched and every week a new writer spoke of what made them leave the familiar or “home” in search of new land, new experiences and new faces. Why do we turn our back to what we know and seek novelty? For adventure? Because we’re lonely? Because we can? I put together here links for the complete series where writers and travelers meditate on this question and attempt to reveal the mystery that often shrouds the practice of travel.

Each recounts their personal experiences and their own philosophy of travel:

We have also accepted two contributions from readers:

On Twitter: @pakinamamer tweets for @ME_Traveller

Buffers, Les élus

Creators. Destroyers. Two sides of the same coin.

Some people seem to be born natural motivators; they’re go-getters themselves, they’re full of life, and their imagination is always strong and ripe. They’re miracle-makers. They move the wheels. They’re lucky, and they often make things happen. They’re touched by magic, and everything they lay a finger on turns to gold.

Paradoxically, these people carry within them as much power for creation as they do for destruction. That’s why, sometimes, those who inspire us are the very people that can take us down. That’s why in some human relationships, between men and women, father and son, mother and daughter, the same people who enchant us and who are capable of making us violently happy have a strange power on us and can –with the same intensity– inflict tremendous pain and hurt.

It seems that extreme light can only be balanced by extreme darkness. And both have to exist together.

And so in meeting those who awe and infatuate us, those who make us soar and dream, we should tread softly towards them.

They’re our angels and demons.

And there’s nothing predictable about where the meeting could lead. Like the paradox of their being, the unpredictability is both risky and beautiful.

Buffers, Les élus

On Love — and not just in Saudi Arabia

This is a blogpost I began in July, did not publish and never revisited until this moment. Back then I was reading this Arabic book called Love in Saudi — a text that is both sexual and daring from Page 1.

The cover of "Love in Saudi" by Ibrahim Badi

The most creative bit in the storytelling, for me, was how both the author and the protagonist seemed to be racing to tell the same story. They were competing, but although the author –by virtue of inhabiting the ‘real world’, holding the pen, and writing the narrative– seemed infinitely more superior than the persona he created, he still felt threatened.

It was a parallel narrative. The character, unaware of the presence of the author, told his story in the first person. The author, the creator if you will, told it in the third person, obsessively insisting that his side of the story was the truth, and that he will finish his account first. The character wins in the end, and we hear him till the end, as he spoke of a failed marriage, multiple relationships and a girl who thoroughly broke his heart.

The whole affair (since it meditated on the place of physical intimacy in a pre-marital albeit committed relationship in our conservative part of the world) reminded me of a short conversation I had with writer and relationship expert Marwa Rakha. I had just begun reading her book and I questioned her list of 10 things girls should be wary of in relationships with Egyptian men, mainly the issue of being perceived as “easy” or “depraved.”

It seems that many Egyptian men, or at least this is how the stereotype goes, cannot draw a line between romance and sexuality, between “using” a girl and reciprocating pure emotions, emotions that could be manifested in a touch, a hug or a kiss — for even those (from a girl’s perspective) can be platonic and pure, neither sexual nor libertine.

Of course, this perception is dependent on many factors; time invested, depth of feelings and context being a few examples. But truth be told, no matter how uptight, if you do like someone, all inhibitions may be put on hold and one may discover a new way of communicating feelings, without tripping over in speech or getting clumsy with words. And if it doesn’t contradict your personal understanding of religion, then it becomes natural, and right in every way.

But even if one believes so, you read something like what Marwa has written (and God knows she’s experienced), and the “conservatism” streak kicks in. Who wants to be thought of as ‘easy’? The word has such a stigma. And personally I hate to be misunderstood.

So I asked Marwa: “What do you think should be done then? Should a girl censor her feelings (and their physical manifestations) and put a cork on her personal beliefs so that she wouldn’t be thought ‘easy’ or ‘desperate’ or ‘confused’ or what have you?”

The doubts were magnified and a stream of questions led to more questions: “What about the girls who refuse any form of intimacy with a guy out of the context of engagement or marriage? Why do they do it? Because they firmly believe in it because it’s ‘haram‘ or ‘inappropriate’? (Then again I would understand if the reasons are religion-related) … Or are they disciplined/conservative and shy and timid just to keep appearances?”

Courtesy of Marwa Rakha's official website. The cartoon is a depiction of Rakha.

Think about it. It all could be a farce. The “conservative” leaning (“It’s not right to hold hands, or kiss a guy until they’re married” thing) could be there because of the inherent fear that the man –even if he pretends to be open-minded or understanding– might be traditional and judgmental.

In this case, it becomes not discipline per se but a very deep (perhaps subconscious) form of manipulation and deceit aimed at keeping the man close until marriage.

It makes me think. Is the shy/conservative/disciplined girl an illusion? Would she be as emotionally and physically disciplined, or “conservative”, if she was given a guarantee that the man won’t judge her or walk away if she’s not? May be. May be not. Only God knows.

And I think it’s impossible to know. Manipulation can run deep on both sides and many Egyptian men, save a good uncorrupted few, have not given women enough reason to trust them, to open up, and express themselves without reservations.

Without feeling the risk of being labelled depraved, or excuse me, a “whore”, many women are being over-cautious with simple physical expressions such as lying in the man’s arms or holding his hand.

And for many the reasoning is unflawed, then again, one could think, “what’s the use of being as honest and as free as you want, or what’s the use of doing what you feel is right, if it carries the risk of ending up alone?”

A few weeks later after reading both books, Love in Saudi and Rakha’s, I stood watching one of “Bussy’s” shows. The staged plays were about relationships in part between Egyptians, between friends, girls and cat-calling pedestrians, riders of the same bus, between classes, and many more. In one sketch, not a comedic one, a young man was complaining to his friend about “social inhibitions” and how they affected the most natural relationships.

He said that he didn’t want to have to be married to a girl to know her well and be able to spend time with her, without being labeled negatively. Along those lines, he said he wasn’t even seeking anything sexual but the natural progression of a relationship between two human beings who become close and intimate by sharing their lives and spending enough time alone together …

“I want to be able to invite her to my house, cook together, sit and listen to music and talk until the break of dawn, travel alone with her, etc, etc.”

I knew what he meant — I, too, wanted to share little pieces of myself with the one I choose. No hidden sexual motives. No stolen kisses. Instead, emotional nudity (which psychologist Rollo May argues opens us up and makes us more vulnerable than real nudity).

Precious moments. Simple requests. Simple pleasures. Complicated society.

Needless to say, when I asked Marwa, she briefly explained she was referring to “sex” in her book not hugging and holding hands. But sex, to be frank, has no place in my reflections, mainly because … well, admittedly I’m too conservative myself on this subject to be able to discuss it objectively.

And that’s that.

Listening to: nothing, the room is quiet
Mood: slightly dreamy, edging on contemplative
Wants from the Universe: Love

Les élus, Travel Writing

Travel Literature: A two-hour journey

Warning: This blogpost makes blatant generalizations about travel writing, and spends an awful lot contemplating why death and travel have much in common. The thoughts may be incoherent at times, and conclusions are loose. There’s much recycled from emails to a particular unlucky friend, and the beginning and ending may not tie together. You see, it’s very personal. And it’s more about me than about travel, or at least it’s equally about both.

Browsing travel books in a Heliopolis bookstore, I decided to read the first few pages of each book to check it for style. Between skimming through the books and jotting their names down on the yellow sheets of my new notepad (the cheapest I found in the proximity of the pricey stationer and bookstore), I sent snippets of thoughts in emails to a rather annoying friend who claims he “forgives but never forgets” and who shall remain nameless throughout this post.

A Bedouin tent, near Shalateen

One of the virtues of owning a blackberry; it’s a megaphone onto your small world. Thoughts are voiced, and voices are amplified and wrapped up nicely in mini-emails that fly off to friends and family, assuring you both that you’re there — Hmm, in a way.

I looked through eight books, some of which were more interesting and engaging than the rest. They Saddle Dogs: A Journey Through East to West by Greg Hunt was one of those that got my attention. “I have to say I like this Greg Hunt, at least his chapter One is good,” I wrote to my friend. “He writes with a mix of nostalgia and melancholia — with the right dose of cynicism and self-reflection.”

I reflected, “Death and farewells hover over the first two pages and I like that. A travel book that begins with things that passed, that’s new to me, and beautiful because death and farewells, as sad as they may be, imply journeys and movement, leaving the familiar behind and going towards the unknown. When we die or say our goodbyes, we travel, spiritually or mentally, and in both cases physically.”

The prelude to his book was preceded by a single quote, by Lewis B. Smedes. It read, “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” The first two lines touched me and the last two lines filled me with a sense of longing — it’s that feeling of hope mixed with doubt, and the longing is for sweet forgetfulness or peaceful remembrance, the one without bitterness, false delusions or unnecessary denials of a truth one could not live with.

What touches us about books are very strange indeed, I thought to myself. And I wondered what spoke to me in travel literature. The next interesting books helped me make some -admittedly vague- generalizations, part-humorous and part-analytical.

One of those books was called ‘Arabia of the Bedouins’ and was written by Marcel Kurpershoek.

Waters of a Fayyum Lake

And the bit I read warranted another correspondence to the chosen friend (also victim of my obsessive thought). I cited this quote, beautifully written, “A gentle, melancholy desert breeze, which whispered and rustled if you bent your ear in its direction, caressed the rolling dunes and carried with it the distant sound of a dog barking. In the same direction, on the other side of a deep depression, there was a glimmer of light, no more than a tiny patch in the blackness. A Bedouin tent, I guessed. In the white light of the moon, in its third quarter and high in the sky, only the largest stars were visible. Scorpio had already plunged below the south-western horizon and the remnants of the Great Bear had also disappeared. To the north, Andromeda wound its way across the heavens like the knots in a long rope, flanked by the inverted camel’s saddle of Cassiopeia. Under the table I had buried my bare feet voluptuously in the soft warm sand of the Nefud as-Sirr. Behind me was Hamra, the ‘reddish brown female camel’, as I had dubbed the Land Rover — much to the annoyance of my Arab friends, since colour designations are never used as animal names.”

And I wrote to my friend:

“From this small paragraph, I can conclude that good travel writing must have:

1. Wind, sand and stars
2. The word ‘Bedouin’ somewhere
3. A machine that has a name, and preferably a Land Rover.
4. A reference to camels
5. Mention of tents or some kind of sanctuary against the cold or heat
6. The friendly voice of a storyteller, the author, one of us.
7. Angry Arabs or ‘different’ Bedu people, the others, not one of us.
8. The words ‘melancholy’ or ‘nostalgia’ to give it an air of romantic tragedy.
9. Bareness (the desert, the “it”, the unknown, the mystery) juxtaposed against complex familiarity (the car, the “ours”, the known, the tried, the security blanket).
10. Color – literally or figuratively.”

Thankfully, I already know a car — a nice machine whose color reflects the light of the sun– which has a name, a twitter account and an email address and whose presence reminds me of adventure and of things that may never be again.

Another book, The Scent Trial: A journey of the senses, tells the story of a woman who traveled from France to Morocco and across Turkey, India, Sri Lanka and Yemen, to trace the origins of ingredients of a perfume scent created specially for her in a shop in London. In the intro of the book, Celid, the author, wrote, “And because scent evokes memories -at one time or another we have all experienced those sudden unexpected moments when a trace of scent instantly reminds us of an incident from childhood, or a forgotten landscape, or the presence of a long-lost lover – we tirelessly search for the right one.”

How smart! Her book is about scents, and through this beautiful sentence the author links the smells to psychological journeys as she takes us, the readers, on a physical journey, and sets the mood for the rest of her book. Senses and emotions. Another thing a travelogue is about. I added that to the mental checklist of what a travel book should allude to.

Next. The Hills of Adonis: A quest in Lebanon. “This journey belongs to a time of innocence – both Lebanon’s and mine,” read the preface. “Fleetingly it may recapture the beauty of that ravaged country and the people who used to live there in peace.”

The line evokes a sense of nostalgia -important in travel writing, it seems- and the essence of a past that is gone and can only be recaptured in writing. The book reads like a memoir. And the mood that the first chapter sets says that the book is both about place and man. It’s as autobiographical as it is a travel account.

“Of all the gods conceived by ancient men, the last to pass away were those divinities of sun and earth who dominated the Semitic world. Because they represented most nearly the needs and instincts of mankind, they remained long after their images had been broken: rebellious, archetypal giant,” began the first chapter of the book, foreshadowing a heavy dose of self-reflection. It didn’t disappoint.

“The search for such many-faceted divinities will entail being led astray, demanding as it does, a long walk down the corridors of time and thought. The conclusions will be personal, and the quest may be satisfied, as pilgrimages are, as much in its journey as in its end,” the author wrote.

In his Mirrors to Damascus, a personal record of the city jeweled with episodes from its history, he writes of Damascus, “but men came here before their coming could be recorded.”

Other books similarly spoke of the past in their account of a fleeting momentary present that seemed to be beautiful only because it carried remnants of a bygone era. Then again, what could be more attractive to a traveller than a “long-forgotten route” or a lost city or oasis, the hidden, the past, the personal journey towards the collective origins of us, the origins of man. Travel is about the search for the meaning of life, as friend and travel writer Amr El Beleidy wrote on his meditation of travel (“Why do we travel: To discover what we cannot leave” published by http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en)

It’s the quest for roots, in the hope of finding purpose. And this is why travel memoirs touch us, because the journey carries within it what defines man: the fall, the grand expedition towards finding self and God, the death, and the resurrection. When we travel, we open our eyes. When we die, we awaken. When we say goodbye, we take off. When we search, we realize what is essential and invisible to the eyes. We live. When we get lost, we find traces, small routes that lead back to ourselves. We travel. And when we know who we are, we travel away from the world, because we have understood it too much to desire it. We die. And it’s beautiful.

Listening to: Whatever was on in that bookstore, I think it was Arabic music
Mood: “Strangely beautiful” as I described it to said friend in a different correspondence
Wants from the universe: My own travelogue, strong friendships, sweet aromatic tea, a night spent under the stars, a happy hour (a real one, not the one meaning the drinks are cheap), a new adventure, a new love and more solitary walks in a quiet, cool Cairo.

This post is also available on my new travel blog @ Travelpod.com. Please bookmark it and watch it for more travel-related blogposts. Cheers!

Les élus, Travel Writing

Why do I travel? To think

In solitude travel, we see the invisible

This the curtain-raiser for a series that Al-Masry Al-Youm Travel, which I’m heading, has recently launched. With a new voice every week, writers offer their reflections on the reasons why people leave behind familiar settings, friends, and perhaps even family members and beloved pets, to explore new places, away from home.

I jumped on the early train to Minya minutes before it started moving, after pushing my way through the crowd at Cairo’s main railway station, where the hustle and bustle begins in the early hours of morning and almost never ceases.

I’d barely slept a few hours. Insomnia, coupled with an obsessive thinking that usually precedes my trips–on planes or trains, highways or boats–had left me looking like a zombie, disorientated, and wondering why on earth I was traveling. Minutes earlier I had been scrambling to find the right platform through half-sleepy eyes and a self-induced haze, my mind clouded.

So why do we travel?

To escape. To forget. Or perhaps to remember the things we push back into our memories during the rattle of daily city life as we juggle family commitments and work, haggle to get things done, and try to meet deadlines that pass rapidly by as we try not to lose our sanity. Perhaps it’s to preserve those subtle differences that separate us from walking, talking machines.

Or perhaps we travel because we have to.

In travel, we’re separated–not only from what we love, but from what we hate, and what we fear.

Psychologist Eric Fromm once wrote that the deepest need of man “is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness”–because, he says, this separateness creates anxiety, and “the world can invade me without my ability to react.”

But maybe separateness is essential from time to time, facilitated by travel, precisely so that we can be invaded, by sights, sounds, ideas and people. In our vulnerability, we may realize who we are and what truly holds us together. We can start re-evaluating how we see the world. Our faith may be shaken or broken, or made stronger, depending on the outcome of the experience.

It’s a test of whether or not what we consider important has any meaning at all. Indeed, it’s a gamble.

And it is scary, because we may discover we’re holding on to an illusion, or on our return we may look differently on what we once considered of utmost importance.

Like any journey, toward the self or toward God, the truth can be too hard to handle. And once known, it can never be unknown. Done but not undone, like our past mistakes.

Perhaps travel, in that sense, is a mistake. Because opening your eyes, or Seeing, with a capital “S”, becomes a life-time sentence.

And so in deciding to travel, we’re torn apart by a desire to escape from our reality, and an equally strong desire to stay put and escape from the journey we’re embarking on–or at least from the memories, thoughts and questions it might provoke. The push and pull between the two forces decides what we do in the end.

Why do we travel?

To think. I took the window seat on that train to Minya, rested my head back and breathed. Thinking is different on trains, I thought to myself, as I stared through the window watching the cities, towns, countryside, and the world rolling by.

I pulled out my notebook to review my research for the assignment I was heading to Minya for, and to jot down a few extra questions.

Perhaps separateness is essential, facilitated by travel, precisely so that we can be invaded

I was traveling there to do a piece on sectarian clashes. Relations between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt are tense, and since the 1990s violence between the two has been on the increase. My visit would include meetings with church officials and members of the Christian community, and I thought about how this was another exercise in getting people to talk and open up, despite the possible security threat.

Assignments away from home have a different flavor. At home, conversations, interviews and communications are muddled with worries, plans unfulfilled and things to rush to.

Away, we listen. We wake up early every morning, full of a new-found readiness to discover. Distance changes the way we look at what time has turned mundane, including the work habits we have fallen into.

Sources become people, assignments become stories, and “quotes” take on a human shape –the shape of the zeal, happiness, sadness or indifference with which they are uttered.

We’re alone, so we listen.

But I never opened my notebook throughout that train ride. I just looked through the glass window.

As scenery moves quickly to the backdrop of the world, all loses meaning, except those things that truly matter. These stay.

And they fill you with both reassurance, and a measure of sadness, a nostalgia mixed with a longing for freedom. The freedom that comes with separation. The freedom that hurts and liberates. The sister of loneliness.

It’s freedom from the very things that own and move us, from the angels and demons of human relations and what ties us to each other and to the world. In solo travel, on the road, we’re just us.

Thinking is different on trains. In moving. In the departure. In the journey. In the return. Or the no return. In the solitude.

The problem is that I manage, consciously or not, to leave a bit of myself behind everywhere I go. In the train. In the destination. In the people I come in contact with. In the higher levels of thoughts, and in their lowest.

Perhaps that’s why I’m never complete in stillness. And my mind can never go blank, even during an event-less train journey.

Perhaps that’s why I travel.

To think.

Readers of Al-Masry Al-Youm are encouraged to contribute by reflecting on their own journeys and telling us why they travel, either by sending their stories to pkamer@almasry-alyoum.com, or sending a direct message showing their interest to @AlMasry_Travel, by registering to the site and writing a blog or by leaving their comments. Also, my friends and readers of this blog, are welcomed to write guest blogs telling me why they travel and sending them to me here. You can leave them as comments on this post, and I’ll moderate and publish them.

Buffers, Les élus, Travel Writing

Untraversed roads & the trappings of a digital world

Taken during a trip to Wady El-Rayan, Fayyum

“Here at last I was plunging into the untraversed and the unknown. What lay ahead? It was not the possible dangers of the journey which made my nerves tingle and caused my spirits to mount with exhilaration — dangers are merely a part of the day’s work in the desert. It was the realization that I was to explore hidden places; that I should go through a region hitherto untrodden by one of my own kind, and make, perhaps, some contribution, small though it might be, to the sum of human knowledge.” – Crossing the untraversed Libyan desert, by A.M. Hassanein, for the National Geographic.

Reading Ahmed Mohamed Hassanein’s article, I grew sad, then a particular brand of anger I know too well started to build up – just like a sand storm in the desert, twisting the sands and rising from the feet up until it’s as high as your head, as Hassanein rightly described – and reaching my head, the mind started to boil with ideas.

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself researching and retracing the Egyptian explorer’s steps on a paper map (Google Earth is beautiful to look at, but confuses me. I find paper, in all its forms, romantic. Books, journals, folded maps, nothing can beat this for me). I drew my own route in my head, and wondered who to sell the story to if I ever do an encore. Would the Nat Geo be interested? the Voice that lived in my head asked.

Then nothing. Silence. All the lights were turned off in my head. The mountains disappeared. A starless, moonless night suddenly loomed. And the anger that had almost morphed into a driving passion faded. And suddenly, my little dreams turned from oases to mirage, illusions. Depression trickled in.

It could easily be my mood; it changes you know. And this phase is dark (I’m learning to live with it). Suddenly, the left side of my brain started awakening from its slumber, bombarding me with considerations, resources being the first of them. The “company” question was next in line. Money and people are always tricky, the right side of my brain agreed almost reluctantly. But in an afterthought added, “you just need to decide, start planning, and the universe will take care of the rest.” The left-side let out a snort. The voice in my head interfered, and the argument was three-sided now.

I personally disengaged. It was too much to take in, and if I get truly depressed, I’ll just leave all and go to sleep.

So I took off to that lonely cave in my brain, and started to think. I’ll blog while I’ll do it. My blog is part of that cave, where I go to when I’m lonely, when friends and even the most special of people seem at a distance, on the other bank of a river which has no boats, and whose water is dark and treacherous.

And here I am. And right now, finishing an article written in 1920s with no glossing of how cruel the desert is but also not hiding how beautiful it is, I have a profound hatred for the modern traps of social life. My distaste for Twitter and Facebook alike are increasing, and my boredom with those who inhabit only those spheres is scaring even myself (then again, Tweetville was where I ran to when I felt lonely, inspired, happy or betrayed).

But now I feel it’s part of this monster, the city. It’s another illusion, a trap on three levels a la Inception dreams, full of faceless people who are just as lost as I am, or perhaps as lonely, people who can’t enjoy the moment without tweeting about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of those people are the most inspiring and successful I’ve met. But some have equated virtual presence with presence, or have decided to add to the “noise”. But this is not a blog about Twitter, its curses or virtues. And it’s not fair to bash one of the few places where I can truly share — as sad as this may be.

The road to Al-Kufrah.

I’ve been considering it, even before knowing A.M. Hassanein had been there. And now that I have read his accounts, it seems all the more magical. I wondered what the place looks like now, almost 90 years later, and whether tribes still hold fast to their traditions, alliances and secrets. Or whether like the era when that article was written, it all faded away, and now you have Bedouins with Nokia cell phones. Ugh, damn those too! (The phones, not the Bedouins)

It was sad to read about the Senussi brotherhood, knowing that most of them were destroyed by the Italians. In the early 1900s, they were still inhabiting part of the Western desert in Egypt, mainly in the oases (wahat) of al-Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafara and Siwa. They led campaigns against the British military, and at a point were defeated and had to withdraw into Libya. In the Libyan desert, they took sanctuary but similarly resisted the Italian forces until the early 40s, and like Libyans, they endured much damage. Their lodges and Sufi orders were closed, their sheikhs killed or arrested and their lands confiscated. The order still stands, according to records, but it’s now a pale shadow of its past prestige and glory.

It’s a bit of history of the Bedu that we don’t know. City people often call them “Arabs” or “‘Orban” – an alienating term and a reminder that they hailed from the Arabian peninsula. Not “pharoahs” like us, but Arabs. Different. “Colored” perhaps. Not “fair” (and lovely) like us.

But again, the people who live there are only part of the magic. The main charm lies in the stretch of desert itself, with all the kind of “silences” that Saint-Exupery had once described in his Letter to a Hostage, which alluded to his trips in the Sahara.

It’s the desert pulling you into its arms, with heart-warming scenery, in one moment, and pushing you away into a depth of a menacing storm, or your own hallucinations when the water supply is low and the sun is high, in the next. For you see, the desert is a woman, one you couldn’t love but would have died to. It’s Earth. It’s life. It’s that slightly moody, intensely charming man you were once in love with. It’s your soul, and mine, with all their fluctuations, mystic and elusiveness.

Hassanein wrote at some point: “One day we had to advance in the teeth of the storm, and I saw how it could keep moving slowly. To stop means to be drowned by the sand. The camels instinctively know this and continue to advance in site of the tormenting blast. On the other hand, the moment the rain comes they stop and even kneel down. During my previous travels I had collected many of the rules of sandstorms and their behavior, according to Bedouin information, but to my great regret, they were all broken in those days of trial. Sometimes, however, toward sunset, when we had been battling for hours against the seemingly interminable bombardment, the wind would stop dead, as if a master hand had given a signal. For an hour or more the fine sand and dust would settle slowly, like a falling mist. A short while afterward the moon would rise, and under the pale magic of its flooding light the desert would assume a new aspect. Had there been a sandstorm? Who could remember? Could this peaceful expanse of loveliness ever be cruel? Who would believe it?”

What strikes me about Hassanein’s writing is the ease by which he recounts his stories and records his findings. No (imaginary) frantic arm-waving or loudness in the story-telling, or magnification of dangers. He describes life and death matters – including being too short on water, losing camels which are like caravan members to them, losing the way, being caught in a storm or trekking for too long that death becomes a welcome thought- with such simplicity that the reader cannot be but awed.

Courage and resilience, it seems, cannot be spoken of but in small words. Big words are saved for the pretentious, and those who have nothing to say. Those who begin their stories with gasps of “Oh my God!” or “You would never believe what just happened.” Danger, adventure and accomplishment are not dramatic when they’re real. They’re only so when they’re mimicked and staged in big Hollywood flicks, or jotted down in resumes and boasted about in Twitter and Facebook bios.

Towards the end of his journey, after discovering two Oases, whose locations were not previously verified and so had become “half-mythical” in reputation, Hassanein’s caravan faces more difficulty on the return. Water supplies were little and the trek as well as the terrain were more difficult. “There was more than one night when I thought the desert would reclaim its secret of the hidden oases by blotting out our little party and swallowing us in the sands.”

However, the desert spared them, and “the heart of him who wandered into far places” was gladdened upon the return.

Indeed, that must be how “happiness” feels, that elusive notion, happiness, that only those who have been stripped of all (sleep, security, basic needs like food and water, a comfortable bed or a warm night without the fear of distant tribes or nearing storms) can only feel in the reunion with those simple pleasures.

Listening to: the humming of the air-conditioner in my room
Mood: indescribable, but a little calmer post-venting
Wants from the universe: Travel, Write, Publish. Love, Live, Be Loved. Repeat.

Buffers, Fluff

وظيفة خالية: محترف تحرش

“Overheard on the Radio” — Check this out: Amr El Beleidy (@beleidy) and I (@pakinamamer) came across this one. Amr, of course (THE GUY!) thought that every girl is finding it more and more difficult to get married these days, “and for a good reason” so this makes sense (the audacity). He said, and yes I’m quoting: “Times are getting tougher. The demands on the current social situation are very difficult to satisfy, and a decent guy is not exactly round every corner. And sometimes people need to find something here are there that makes it easier to stand the difficult times, and this person – whether they’re joking or not- is trying to give people that.”

Personally …

I think this is mad! It’s either unmarried Egyptian girls are getting too desperate, or unemployment makes people truly creative.

Now listen …

I will reveal the channel later.

© 2010 Along The Watchtower

Fluff, Les élus

Face your cat: Lessons from the animal world

What I noticed about my cat is that when she fears something or someone, she never gives them her back. When she’s afraid, she turns around to face exactly what scares her, always keeping her eyes on it with unwavering attention and vigilance. Sometimes in her watchfulness, you can see that she’s ready to pounce. In other times, she can’t be more relaxed. When what she fears moves away, she immediately lies on her side and even sometimes falls into a slumber.

I think cats take the saying “Face your fears” a bit too literally. But what I love about that is the fact that the confrontation doesn’t always have to be tense. More often than not it’s cool and effortless.

Listening to: Pirate Jenny, Nina Simone
Mood: sleepy, relaxed, light
Wants from the universe: more weight loss, dark chocolate 70% Cocoa, nice sandals, a good trip next weekend, blissful sleep and a raise. Also Happiness. Unconditional.

Buffers, Les élus

Hope Floats (it does, I promise!)

Because of all the freedom and the potential that it carries, because I’m still young and because I have big dreams, because everything is changing, I think I’m safe to say: this is the best time of my life.

Listening to: nothing
Mood: indescribable
Wants from the Universe: More pink & white fluffy thoughts (for a change). Clean air forever and fresh juice please.

Fluff, Les élus

The Aviators

Saint-Ex or The Little Prince, he came from another planet and owned a flower, which he didn't know how to love.

Since sleep hasn’t come yet and it’s almost 3:30 am (I have to be up by 9:00!!), I decided to pay a tribute to some of my favourite men: all aviators, all a bit cuckoo in the head with an affinity for suffering, open air, impressing people and breaking the hearts of those they love.

Howard Huges: His life was portrayed in the film The Aviator, he was played by Leo Dicaprio
Eyes: intelligent and deadly

I don’t know why but I have a soft spot for eccentric men who are both imaginative and destructive, sensitive and cruel, detached from reality and frightfully intelligent, enigmatic and obsessive, charming and eternally depressed, proud and secretly self-hating, ridiculously successful and hopelessly lonely (at least in their heads), creative and nocturnal, sentimental and vindictive, spiritual and selfish. Those men that are touched by madness and melancholia, which show in their eyes (I think psychologists have given this type of men a name now. Manic-depressive or people with borderline personality disorder). And yes, I’m sober and well aware of what I’m writing here. And time proves again and again that I somehow get attracted to (or intrigued by), in fiction, history or real life, these types of men. Foolish of me. They’re the best and worst, in so many ways. And I’m like a butterfly, I seek the light even if it kills me (or perhaps precisely because it carries the promise of death, the big adventure, that I willingly fly towards it). Perhaps one day I’ll grow up, and learn to like nice decent men who say lovey-dovey stuff and read books to blind children in their spare time (aww, I’m touched by this image now, perhaps I’m growing up already!) While I’m at it, I decided to attach pictures of my favourite male look: Can you guess? Well you don’t have to. The pictures are right here … Listening to: the sound of silence, Mood: Sentimental, Romantic, Dreamy

Pilot Fashion: Nothing looks sexier on men than brown aviator jackets
Aviator look from Zara
Both nerdy and "pilot-y". It's perfect!
Desert explorer, pilot, and the chronically lonely Almasy as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient. My Favorite quote from the movie, said by Almasy, "How can you ever smile, as if your life hadn't capsized?"
Buffers, Les élus

Are some people addicted to suffering?

Psychologist and Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard

“Sovereign of my heart, Regina, kept safe and secret in the deepest corner of my breast.”

I’m big on psychology theorists these days, and while searching for e-books for Rollo Reese May (since I failed to find any hardcopies in our distinguished book-stores across Cairo), I came across works by Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, psychologist and theologian. I decided to “wiki” him since I have to admit I knew nothing of him and the book that I came across had an incredibly sexy title (It’s called ‘Fear and Trembling’).

His wiki page touched upon his relationship with the love of his life Regine Olsen. The woman, as also several other pages claim, greatly influenced his work. He was briefly engaged to her, their love was “deep” according to records, but then he lost her. How? Well, he broke off the engagement. It was his doing, and then he suffered for it during his short life (he died at 42).

Why did he do it? The reasons are not clear. Some say it was due to his devotion to God and church (almost forced upon him by his father), others say to immerse himself in his work, while some said he realized he was not a man for marriage but the real reasons died with them. Olsen refused to publish her diaries (although an unverified account resurfaced later and was sold as her diary), while Kierkegaard referred to his relation only in his work. He and Olsen also corresponded, but his letters remains and hers are destroyed. Some accounts said that Olsen had told her friends that before the break-up Kierkegaard felt an immense sadness, and she suspected that drowning himself in work was a tactic to distance himself away from her.

Such a mystery, isn’t it? From her side, Olsen was devastated when seemingly without good reason her man left her. He refused to take her back even when she threatened suicide. In her despair, she begged him not to leave her. And in order to drive her away, Kierkegaard feigned coldness, telling her that perhaps in 10 years, he will take another woman to “rejuvenate him.” The woman was left in shambles.

Ironically, she moved on, got married but he didn’t. In fact, he was “shocked” to hear of her marriage two years after he had left her. According to a source, shortly after the break up, of her he wrote: “Not even here in Berlin has my, alas, all-too-inventive brain been able to refrain from scheming something or other. She must either love me or hate me, she knows no third possibility. Nor is there anything more harmful to a young girl than half-way situations.” He remained alone until he died, and four weeks before his death, he still wrote of his agony. “I had my thorn in the flesh,” he said. “And therefore did not marry.”

Their story is fleshed out in the introduction of Kiekregaard’s book The Seducer’s Diary — which is believed to be an account of his relationship with Olsen, detailing how he seduced her and how he left, masquerading as a “fictional” tale. The introduction and the first 23 pages of the book can be found here (Google Books Preview).

Of her love, he had written in his journal, “Thou sovereign of my heart treasured in the deepest fastness of my chest, in the fullness of my thought, there […] unknown divinity! Oh, can I really believe the poet’s tales, that when one first sees the object of one’s love, one imagines one has seen her long ago, that all love like all knowledge is remembrance, that love too has its prophecies in the individual.”

The question that begs itself is: What was that about?

I’m sure the pain and the confusion had turned into energy that fuelled his creativity and inspired his writings and made his drive and will stronger. But why make this hard choice to leave abruptly as such and suffer the consequences? Was it reluctance to live with the idea of choosing one person, a lack of responsibility towards this choice or a refusal to surrender to the idea of marriage? Was it cold feet, fear of commitment, fear of happiness? Or was it the realization that he was not meant to be happy or settled or with the person he loved? The belief that he must suffer for some twisted reason that only God knew what it was? Self-punishment? Or perhaps worse, a knowledge that even the person that his heart desires can’t make him whole. A chronic feeling of (and an impulsion for) loneliness or aloneness? Perhaps it was simply boredom. Or a desire to break away, to always be free. Not to be tied down to anything, even the objects of one’s infatuation.

The story touched me. I could see people doing what he was doing (and to be honest, I could see myself doing that despite knowing that women are usually reluctant to make such radical decisions. I just read that women are more reluctant than men to break up relationships even if they’re equally, or even more, miserable than their partners).

The story is not shocking, it’s a bit surprising but most of all it’s sad. Heart-wrenching actually. Because we do make similar choices. I wondered if some people are, by nature, convinced that they cannot and shall not be happy that they consciously (or by a curse of obsessive thought) create the melo-drama, place a verdict upon their lives in their heads and act upon it.

Regine Olsen source: wikipedia

Could it be? The idea scares me. I can’t help but think: What if I’m trapped in my own thinking as such that I might be stirring up suffering? That perhaps there’s a pleasure in being confined to suffering, to being a victim of circumstances. (Or that perhaps it’s easier). We’ve studied back in college cases of people whose lives (and failures) were prophecized by their thinking. Of women who say they can’t find love but keep rejecting it or scaring potential partners away, unconsciously and sometimes consciously. Of men who believe others will eventually hate them (if they see through the protective walls that they erect around them) only to provoke that hate through their actions, thus driving people to hate them and in turn validating their earlier beliefs. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Manipulation of events and others. A very forced way of proving you’re right — even if it hurts you and those around you in the end.

I would be interested to read The Seducer’s Diary in full, and try to search for answers to the question of whether or not some people seek suffering (or can’t do or create or be something without it) through this real-life story of heart-break and great accomplishment. Then again, Kierkegaard was a prolific writer, an influential psychologist and was known to be the “the father of existential philosophy.”

Yet, like many of us, despite delving so deep into human nature and what makes us who we are, he couldn’t be happy. He followed his heart. Then his mind. He hurt others. He hurt himself. He was disillusioned. He was confused. He ached. And perhaps, if my theory is correct, that was (secretly) what he wanted.

Listening to: Ahlam and Mohammed Abdu on Rotana Khalijiah
Mood: pensive, uneasy and slightly irritable

Buffers, Les élus

Closet Existentialism

On Thursday I had a wedding.

Don’t like them. They’re noisy, packed, impersonal, pretentious and showy. And watching the sweat-drenched attendees wriggle and dance themselves dizzy, all the questions of “Why are we here? Who made the world?” come rushing into my head.

It’s safe to say I haven’t attended a wedding that I liked in years.

But this was a good friend’s and I’d promised myself that I have to at least make an appearance to friends’ weddings or no one will show up in mine (if I ever have one!) So that was that, and I decided I’m in this time.

But it wasn’t that easy of a decision. For a whole week before the wedding, the question would cross my mind. It would bring back memories and horror stories, and I know I’d been avoiding it for a while. It haunted me, but every time it did, I would kick it back into the back of my head, thinking to myself, “I will sort it out tomorrow. Tonight, I’ll sleep peacefully. Tomorrow, I’ll think, I promise.”

The question? … What to wear?

Please, before you judge or jump to conclusions; I’m the last girl to care too much about clothes and appearances. Well, at least I was that last girl until a year or two ago, right before I secretly decided that I’d like (or at least I’d like to pretend I’d like) to be choosier in what I don every morning or evening before I set foot outside of the house.

But every time I open my closet to check out the mismatched pieces of fabric inside, I’m faced with the horrible truth: I have nothing to wear.

Weddings used to make me sad, because they were reminders of a rather lacking and modest wardrobe

And I know all girls say that, but me, I, moi? I promise you, I really, really don’t have anything to wear. Or let me be more plain and correct here (since we can all safely assume I don’t go out naked): I have nothing decent to wear.

Not wedding-material at least (and I’m talking about the clothes, not me). As I looked at my closet (packed with trousers, all black, desert scarves, weird tops, muhajabat clothes, two sleeping bags, two or three pairs of washed-out jeans and did I mention the black trousers?), I thought about all those chances I had in London all throughout last year and before during trips to Italy, Beirut or Dubai to pack my bags and in turn wardrobe with some nice dresses that would make me look classy in a party (or at least not bring shame to my family and illicit weird looks from my friends’ friends). And how I wasted every chance.

Why? Body issues. I think part of me always thought I don’t deserve nice dresses. I remember that during shopping, I always found it a joy to pick and choose for my younger sister. And if she wasn’t with me on a trip, I’d do the job like a good sibling, and choose for her. She always loved my taste, I was a bit adventurous (read eccentric) in my choices and I loved to mix chic and boho. Sometimes, I secretly wished I was thin myself so I’d have enough room to maneuver in choosing my own clothes, instead of opting for whatever that hides my curvature and all those flaws that my eye immediately catch whenever I but glimpse my reflection in a mirror.

I can safely say I’ve lost some good weight, and fingers crossed (and mouth shut) I intend to lose more. This time, I’m intent on reaching my ideal weight and the look that will make me confident (since I did reach a point where I felt tired of being embarrassed by that ‘vessel’ that carries me around everywhere). But with the weight loss, I lost both kilos and half of my wardrobe; some clothes just look funny on me now.

So what did I end up doing this time? I waited till the morning of the wedding, decided I wasn’t going to panic, and instead act professionally. Those memories of similar situations (the tears before weddings where I was convinced I looked fat and “bee2a”, all the times I blamed my parents for my lack of fashion sense, all those party photographs where I looked like The Laughing Cow, the painful hunt from a prom and later graduation party dress) were pushed back, supressed, buried deep down, and set fire to. Those times are gone, I told myself.

First, I raided my sister’s wardrobe. Well, she carried some extra weight herself a couple of years back, and surprisingly I did find two dresses that looked alright and fit. But just to have more choices (acting professionally makes you demanding and haughty considering a day earlier I was completely desperate), I made emergency phone calls to my friends. I actually went as far as texting one of my sister’s best friends who’s a sucker for party wear and has a wide variety. My message was brief: “I need a dress for a wedding. Something black.” Before she had a chance to respond, I followed with another text: “I lost weight btw.” It was essential. For her, so she would know I can actually now fit into her dresses. For me, as an extra reassurance that I’m on the road to change whatever I hated (had issues with/felt insecure about) in myself.

Me is not written in stone. Me is an evolving thing, something that I have yet to discover, not something that I carry around or is bound to forever. Last year, I was the girl with major self-destructive body issues. Last Thursday, I was still insecure but with less weight on my hips I ended up with at least six dresses to choose from, all fit me and all looked alright. I painted my toes flaming red, wore my high-heeled sandals (instead of opting for the ballerinas as I always would) and I walked tall -mainly because of the heels- and proud (a teeny tiny bit). But it’s not because of who I am now, but because of the potential I felt I had in me.

Of course, all those fluffy inner-power love-yourself-for-who-you-are-blah-blah feelings are not permanent, they come and go. And I do end up sometimes in a puddle on the floor crying my eyes off because of the “long way ahead of me.” (I’m 3kilos away from my ideal weight, height minus 100 and all that. But I’m like 10-15 kilos away from my ideal look). I knew that, but I decided to indulge in the good feelings as they lasted, savour those moments that make me want to invest in my body and my self more.

The next day it was my sister’s best friend’s engagement party – yup, the same girl I called for help. And I had to be there – axing my travel plans for the weekend. And I dressed up again, and I conjured up all those me-myself-and-I-powers again and I ventured out there, making mental photographs of all those dresses that made me drool …

… Yup, I have decided I deserve nice dresses too, for a change. And you know what? I even have a folder on my laptop now titled “Being a girl project.” Yes, the nerd is me is taking the “beauty project” very seriously, with folders, notes, research, pictures and one big fat plan to make me thin.

And let the blogosphere be my witness, I will be (insha’Allah).

Ah, and that wedding? It was awesome! College mates who haven’t seen me for two or three years or so noticed the weight loss, to my delight. Those who haven’t seen me since college noticed the lack of the headscarf :S But it was all much fun. So was the engagement.

Good times, I tell ya. Good times.

And I’m not even sure whether it’s the times that are changing. Or is it just me.

Listening to: Girl, All My Loving, Hey Jude, Hold My Hand, by the Beatles (duh!)
Mood: Thankful

Buffers, Les élus

Light games

At the third acting workshop this week, light was the star.

We’d moved to a theater in downtown for our training, which is the venue we’ll using from now on. The blackbox we used yesterday is definitely much more equipped and spacious than the studio in Mohandiseen. I’d been moved to a new group, mostly all younger and the girls are more giggly, but they’re just as fun as the first ones I’d trained with. Fun to be with, and even more fun to watch (Yup, some scorn seeped into that last sentence there. I’m not good, I know!).

After the usual meditative and slow movement exercises, we started some light games. Trainer operated the light board, and along with the haunting music, he started switching on and off spots, increasing and decreasing the light intensity, asking us to pay attention to the light, interact with it, move around it, bask in it, watch the rays fall on our bodies and glare into our eyes, stop and talk to it in short sentences without over-acting or saying something that we didn’t actually feel at the time.

It was like a surreal dance as people moved slowly, ventured into the light, covered their eyes from it, explored the darkness around it, watched it, shouted at it, whispered to it, and on and so forth. Slow motion was key there, also keeping the concentration gained from meditation exercises was important. Moving around the room, you were supposed  -through light and darkness and how your body felt as you moved- to explore the space you’re in. Feel it through moving in it.

You’re required to be in your head, in your body, aware, vigilant, yet honest and in touch with your feelings while keeping the calm and the transcendence that has been previously infused in you in previous exercises. At times I was struggling; I didn’t realize (until I started to attend these classes) how “scattered” I am.

It was like trying hard to contain your soul and mind, consciousness, within your body, as they keep slipping away. Anyone out there know how this feels? How difficult it is to be one?

It’s like when we stand in prayer sometimes and fight to enter our inner space while being aware of what we’re saying and doing, with eyes wide open. If anything, this validated my idea that living in the city corrupts. We can’t be still inside anymore, and it’s a constant struggle to be whole … complete, body, mind and soul.

You pull yourself together. You fall apart. You relax. Only to get tense in moments because of the smallest distraction. You enter that empty space in your mind. Then something pulls you out, a thought, a memory or a speech that goes on in your head between you and “the other” (the Voice?).

In brief moments, the light intoxicated me, and there’s something weird that happens when you finally look into the source of light in a dark room; it’s like looking into the face of God … you suddenly feel the desire to confess something, as if this artificial light at its most intense can see through you. As if the light already knows what’s being whispered inside your soul.

Poetic and melodramatic? Of course. My mind knocked itself out. It’s a drama class. And there was no better time to indulge in pseudo-philosophical thought.

The next exercise was based on improvisation again, and assuming characters. And it turned out to be much harder than I thought it would. Four chairs, one white and three black ones, were placed centre stage, light flooding them amid a patch of darkness. The white chair is occupied by one of us, a guy or girl, and the rest by members of the opposite sex. I was chosen twice for this one. In one scene, the guy occupying the chair was to play a boy who dated the three girls occupying the other chairs at certain junctures in his life. The situation preceding the meeting was not spelled out, but they were somehow trapped now into sitting together.

They all loved the boy while dating, he was selfish and nonchalant to their feelings, scornful of romance, in short a typical player. They were wounded and hurt, and now for some game of fate the girls are all friends. You’re not supposed to attack him, or touch directly on the issue, but instead use body-language and implicit references to get back at him.

It went horribly! (in my very humble opinion) The conversations were superficial, gestures exaggerated. You know how bad acting goes? Add to that uncreative, self-conscious improvisation and lack of experience, and you get the picture.

The opposite happened, and I was chosen for the white chair, the self-centered girl who played with the others’ feelings and now feels no remorse but almost amusement and a touch of embarrassment for running into people she used and abused emotionally.

Damn it!

What do you dig out in order to conjure up such feelings?

In my head, I couldn’t evoke one situation where the setting made sense. It made me wonder about the mental and dramaturgical powers that some might gain from being betrayed, heartbroken, from playing with people’s feelings and from manipulating, hurting and being hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I have no envy for those whose hearts were wrenched and minds blown apart in relationships. But suddenly, I appreciated certain human experiences, and how useful they could be in such professions.

Since we all went wrong, we were lectured for half an hour on why we did. Mostly, we couldn’t appreciate silence in such situations, and we couldn’t use the body and the eyes to communicate messages. And we should have.

The trainer said some words at the end, that sounded magical to my ears (simply because I agreed wholeheartedly): “People in the city have forgotten how to become silent. We’re flooded by so much noise that we always need the feel to speak out, to hear our voices. The intensity that comes with silence is sometimes much more powerful that the one that comes with speech and blabbering. Silence is a statement too.”

Listening to: ElTanbura (as recommended by Ashraf Khalil. Find them on YouTube)
Mood: that calm that comes with finally letting go

Books That Inspire, Buffers, Les élus

The memory of the intellect & the eyes

“Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring … So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.”

— Marcel Proust

Listening to … nothing, cos I’m in a hurry and I have to head out
Mood: refreshed thanks to a cold shower

Les élus, On the Road

Clockwork

On the Zaafrana road, the darkness over the Red Sea brings back memories that I thought were far away. Time is a mysterious thing.

And you become responsible forever for what you tame.

Listening to: Muhamed Munir and Aida el-Ayouby
Mood: Dreamy

p.s. A shooting star just fell into the sea.
p.s.s. I love being driven off away from my small world back in Cairo. Roads make me “travel inside my head” as someone told me lately.

Les élus, On the Road

Fresh Air, Quick Press

This Amy Mowafi girl! What a character! I read her booklet Fe-mail last night, and then dozed off, thinking “Must, must, must blog about it.” And I will do write a proper blog entry — since I’m posting this one from my cell phone, on the go, getting out of Cairo for fresh air- and it should be dedicated to her, and perhaps called “The trials and tribulations of being a changing girl.” Yup, I discovered that this is, right now, what defines me: I change.
Therefore I am.
Or not.
Well, maybe.
Exactly.
I don’t understand myself. I woke up this morning, ready for another blogpost, that I’d written in my head while sleeping, and another book. I had also intended to go to the refugee film festival. But one phone call from a friend (more like a pleasant surprise) changed that. The friend suggested we travel for the day, it was already after prayers -a bit too late for hitting the road and getting out of Cairo- but dangerously craving fresh air, I said “Yes” immediately, almost without thinking, at the risk of sounding desperate … plans for supporting human rights, blogging and reading like a good nerd were thrown out of the window, in less than a second. Spontaneity ruled; a fresh change considering how uptight I had become lately. I packed two, or three books (just to convince myself I’m still sophisticated), put on my blue desert scarf (unwashed since the Sinai trip and carrying someone else’s sweat, but who cares? Gives it a distinct personality) and tied my hair back, put on my new aviator shades and decided that as a tribute to Amy (a girl I never met, but almost clashed with on twitter because of @sandmonkey), I’ll write a short blog post from my phone, telling people how this time I’d chosen the sea over the desert, and chosen sad French love songs (that come with instant translation from the driver/friend) over sobby refugee survival stories. Shame on me? I don’t feel so. And I’ll elaborate on that where I’m back to the city that kills, conquers and makes you lonely. But before I fall back into my thoughts, disappear into the backdrop of the real world, and float away in my head, I’d like to tell the desert that it will always be my first love, the love unforgotten, even though I’m now trying to love the sea and reconnect with it again. My love for you is romantic, poetic, indescribable, your silence scares and awes me, it’s both enigmatic and inspirational, but my desire to enjoy the sea is pure biology, biophilia, to be precise. (will later link to my post about biophilia, and if you’re too curious, google it)

Listening to … Valerie Lynch (allegedly spanish, no one understands), air and cars rushing by
Mood: adventurous, grateful, thoughtful, contemplative, smiling softly (perhaps nostalgically) in my head
(Yup, I’m a girl so I’m allowed to mutli-feel)

Buffers, Les élus

Do I come from a star?

I was reading through some of the posts on Evolver.net and http://www.realitysandwich.com, and this post reminded me of an old dream: discovering that I really don’t belong to this world, for some reason or another. Or at least that I don’t belong to the mundane version of it, which I’m living through right now.

Looking over my fantasies, whether that I discover that I’m a witch and get that long-awaited letter from Hogwarts, or to be hand-picked for a special league of chosen people (a select few who have access to the truth or who know better) like Neo and his buddies in the Matrix, or the fellowship of the ring in Middle Earth, or Alain Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the Watchmen, it was always about not being part of this life and not subscribing to this version of reality. Or not doing what other people are doing.

Perhaps it’s about wanting to discover a special talent, or a reason for living (an answer to the ages-old classic “why are we here?”).

But mostly, it’s also about being re-assured that my inability to adapt is shared by others, that there’s a reason for it; that I’m not anti-social, or a self-hating human, but that in fact I’m one of those few who were born different and shall live and die different, and who know something that others don’t. And of course, it all goes down to the chronic feeling of loneliness, which is bound to kill me some of those days if I don’t kill it. And to the conviction I’m always misunderstood, even by those closest to me.

The websites I was checking were all about changing the world, that “we are those we’ve been waiting for”, about sustainability, open-source economy, taking the human species to the next level, evolving our consciousness and connecting with nature. One of them is a social networking website that connects people who are part of this unified consciousness project. I didn’t understand many of the terms juggled between members, and I secretly smiled at groups carrying names like awakening the Divine Feminine.

Some of the members on it reminded me of a theatre professor that my sister loves to death. I remembered him because of his unique personal philosophy and unconventional religious beliefs. That professor, probably an atheist, believes that he’s among this unique breed of human beings who have migrated to Earth from another planet long ago for some mysterious reason, who are scattered across the Earth and who carry some sort of outer-planetary wisdom, and an invisible mark that they only can recognize. He’s not kidding. This breed is different, and they have the ability to know each other instantly, and the joy of meeting each other is incomparable, since their minds and their consciousness are enlightened, more evolved that regular Earthlings. He’s an artist, a dramatist, so this could all be symbolic, or not. If he believes he’s an alien, fine, as long as he doesn’t look down upon commons such as I (but he probably does anyway, and you know what? it doesn’t matter). The professor also believes that “his people” will come, from beneath the stars, to take him back one day, and then he’ll be at peace (Death?). It’s very poetic, and a wild thought sometimes crosses my mind, “perhaps I’m one of those aliens too. Perhaps that’s why I’m lonely. I haven’t found the others, my brethren, my people. Perhaps they will come back for me too.”

It’s a very condescending way of looking at the rest of the human race.

But tell me, have you never felt it too?

This feeling of exaltedness that comes with being lonely and being unable to fit in (on a global level), with being restless, with wanting to travel all the time in your head or physically through leaving the familiar places behind and treading where most people haven’t gone; this feeling of transcendence that comes with losing attachments, with thinking spiritually and philosophically about everything including your closest relationships, even your religion; with retreating and (as a friend recently put it), being an “observer of humanity” from a distance and only “occasionally socializing with humans.”

Do I come from a star?

I wish. It would explain a lot. It would re-assure me that there must be something out there to return to, to long for. Perhaps that’s why I love looking at the sky, perhaps when I do my mind wanders and my heart feels trapped not in wonder and not because I’m in awe by what the universe hides. Perhaps I’m simply home sick.

If you can relate, perhaps you come from a star too. Perhaps you’re one of us.

Listening to Gregorian’s take on My Immortal
Mood: indescribable