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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

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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

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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.