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.

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!

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.