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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
“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?
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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/
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
… 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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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 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?”
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).
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.
“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.
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.
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
Wants from the Universe: More pink & white fluffy thoughts (for a change). Clean air forever and fresh juice please.
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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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!)
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.
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
“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
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.
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)
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.
Glad to announce that Don Young quoted in my blog post Young Reflections has been convinced by someone (couldn’t resist bragging really) to create a blog and share his thoughts with the world. I personally became his first follower, and I love his words. Take a look: http://sleeplessdisorder.wordpress.com/ It’s a new born but it’s worth watching!
Let me take this chance and recommend a few more blogs that I check every morning:
If you suffer, and you will (because who doesn’t?), then do it successfully, according to both Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. Drenched in sorrows, it’s easier of course to stay in bed, jump off a bridge than write a philosophy book. If you plan on ending your suffering once and for all (through say, setting yourself on fire, or drowning yourself in the bath tub), then fine, don’t try and get creative with how to ache. But if you’re not, you might as well use suffering to your benefit, either by creating a blog to tell about your experience, writing songs that breaks people’s hearts as yours have once been broken, becoming a motivational speaker, researching your pain and what it means, being inquisitive about life and the ‘big questions,’ whatever, the choices are endless. Proust chose to write books.
Proust was often sick, was unlucky in love and romantically pessimistic, un-comprehended by friends, over-protected by his mother, ignored by his father, had a failed career in theatre, but all this, if anything, has made him sensitive to the pains of others, and most importantly creative. He wrote: “A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomenon of memory.” According to de Botton, “Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation.”
Proust says, “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” He adds: “A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.”
I know what he means. During a bout of depression, I wrote a short screenplay that I still think could be developed and could perhaps stand a chance on screen in one of those days. When I’m grieving, my head is usually full of ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind. I can guarantee that most stories, poetry and songs that touched us hide wells of pain.
But what a price!
And this comes to mind when I remember tales of genius marred by conflict, manic-depression, drug use, unhealthy obsessions, suicide, heart-break and chronic grief. Virginia Woolfe, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (without his explosive on-again-off-again relationship with Consuelo, world war, loneliness, perhaps the Little Prince would not have come out), Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and if you will, Kurt Cobain and Eminem (sorry, but his songs get to me).
This leads me to a question that I have asked many times before: do we have to suffer in order to rise? Is it the old story of dying on the cross in order to transcend our ego and flesh, and become gods?
But that’s not what de Botton means of course. I’ve strayed a bit here. I believe his argument is, if you’re suffering anyway, you might as well learn, grow and create as you do. He says, “The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals.”
In addition, now in the words of Proust himself, “Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.”
… in nature. And it even has a scientific name: the “biophilia hypothesis” which says that there is an “an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems,” between man and nature. According to wikipedia, it’s Edward O. Wilson who introduced and popularized the hypothesis in his book entitled Biophilia – meaning “love of life” or “love of living system” and it’s Erich Fromm who first used it to describe the psychological orientation towards all that is alive and vital.
And the ‘philia’ is not only towards nature, as in forests, the desert, or parks or but also towards the weather, wind and rain, and animals (I’m thinking that means all animals so I imagine the philia cannot to be properly adopted by people who like “dogs but not cats” or “cats. I hate dogs”, or “red squirrels not grey because grey eats whatever and disturbs this or that food cycle” to the end of those silly arguments).
I was thinking that’s a good explanation for why some of us long to the desert, or develop this urgency or need to climb a mountain and stand on top, or feel called to go to a forest and hide beneath its thick, winding trees or get momentarily lost in snow. And no wonder why people who respond to those calls from the stars, the desert or the raw Earth feel different, energized, empowered and special – as if they were chosen to go there, as a fellow traveller has eloquently put it during a recent hiking trip in Sinai. But it looks like everyone is called, through this invisible umbilical cord that ties us to Mother Earth, but few respond.
Tree hugger talk, I know. But the question that comes to mind is why many of us fail to recognize this tie with nature and the animal world, a tie that seems to be born with us. What blinds us? What distracts us, and then what calls us back? Why have we lost the ability to connect on that level? To stand in the Sahara and breathe in the silence, instead of being intimidated by it, instead of standing on a mountain and shouting “Is there any body out there?” Is it a coincidence that the Little Prince has found his salvation, the clarity to recognize his destiny, in the desert, all alone with the emptiness, a fox and snake to guide him, and the promise of a well -water- nearby? I’ve asked that question before in my post Man, the friend of Silence but so far I have not found an answer.
Is it only in nature that we can find ourselves, the Truth? Or is it when we’re alone in nature? Is connecting to the Earth and being alone, perhaps even lonely, conditions for appreciation of life, of others, for recognition of our fault, failures and shortcomings, and for recognition of what is important and what is really of consequence?
Why is it painful to be alone and away then sometimes?
Why does silence intimidate?
Why does the desert at night, the endless dunes of sand, or the tall-as-sky mountains scare and awe us?
Why does the sea inspire fear and mistrust, why does it hold a type of treacherous beauty and uncertainty?
Why does the Sahara, instead of opening our eyes to the beauty of our inner space, stir up memories of things that never will be?
Why does the rain make us sad, and the snow makes us lonely?
Is it city life that corrupted us as such?
Have we moved so far from the sea that we don’t recognize it any more?
That we don’t know how to love it?
Listening to Une Chanson Pour Tout Dire, Eli et Papillon
and Maybe Findland, Snow and Voices
Mood: Grateful, Calm, and longing for the desert during wintertime
A friend of a friend called Don Young wrote the following words and I found them to be an immaculate rendition of thoughts that haunt most of us, they touched me …
Young says, “We come up with rules, regulations and social norms for everything. We create these imagined realities for ourselves and then we read and write volumes upon volumes on topics such as how to find love, the rules of dating, the guide to successful marriages and so on so that we can learn how to do these things within the guidelines we have set out within our own imagined world …
The thing is though that shouldn’t these things be easy? Does any of it really mean anything when you really think about it? I mean, isn’t it all just really kind of silly, or is it just me?
Is it just me, or is everything and everyone just way too over complicated?
It seems to me that we need to eat, sleep and love … That’s it, that’s all. The rest is just a bunch of imagined nonsense that we create in order to give ourselves some sort of purpose or importance or justify our own greed.
If you really stop and think about it, does any of it matter? Is anything other than sustaining life and finding happiness simply in that, really anything other than nonsense? Ridiculous notions that we dream up as ways to separate ourselves from one another and waste our lives hoarding and hating and hurting each other; and for what? So at the end of our short little lives we can say we have won some sort of imaginary competition? So we can be dead and somehow feel better that our group has gained more ground over another?”
Listening to Brick City Love Song, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
It’s like discovering a new toy, this love business.
For most of the 29 years I’ve lived on this Earth, save a year in college and two in high school, I really was never sentimental, in the romantic sense. No one impressed me, dramatic displays of love made me feel like puking and I poked fun in every chance I got at the hopeless romantics who I encountered along the way. This began to change in London when, as it seems, I was thunder-struck with the idea that I don’t want to end up alone. That gained momentum when I was back in Cairo.
Now, I’m different.
At least in my head, I began making mental checklists of Mr. Right (I’d like to call him X, sounds much cooler), crossing out traits here and there, then putting some of them back on again, as I go. Only to end up wanting the universe to choose for me or surprise me. And I started developing this fantasy of running into my “dream guy” and not having to settle for an arranged marriage — Sorry, girls, tried to wrap my head around it, almost did, but my head is too big for that 🙂 at least so far.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still loyal to some of my old beliefs.
I still find cheesiness hard to swallow, it gets lodged in my throat almost every time but now I’m obsessively curious about ‘L’amour’ and all it entails. Even heartbreak sounds intriguingly albeit melancholically beautiful in a way. And believe it or not, some love songs do make more sense now. I have much more patience for my friends’ romance-related anecdotes — and to my delight I have been told I’m now “more human” and “softer”. (And love is all what I want to blog about these days).
But I have to say the discoveries made are not only linked to stretches of emotion, actually they’re more linked to how we’re psychologically affected by the experience, like this blogpost suggests, and in turn physically, like this and this articles show. How are people affected by their upbringing, and how that plays out in their current relationships? The meeting of two, the merge of ideas and of pasts, the latter more significant than the former. What happens when we fall in love? Why do we prefer some people to others? What governs this process? Biology, culture, evolution? All of that? What makes one factor stronger than the other? What happens when we fall out of love? What happens when we move on? When we’re jealous? or cold? When we communicate successfully or surrender to conflict? Head and body. Male brain and female brain.
Could be for some people. However, there’s always the joy of exploring the philosophical part, which is more poetic, heart-wrenching at times, and it touches us deeply, mainly because it tells us about ourselves in the most beautiful of words. It’s also as eyeopening as it is sad, because we learn about cycles of thought, inhibitions, patterns of behavior that define the human condition. And it makes you wonder what traps us, whether it’s all fated, or all inherent in the collective consciousness. Deep stuff, I tell ya. And, for those who are like the past-me, most of it is not even romantic.
Listening to the buzz from Algeria-Slovenia football match
+ Noise from the oscillating fan in the office
Mood: Playful, Inquisitive
It was a red grape. And I had a suspect in mind: my youngest cat. He likes to play with our food.
It made me smile, because it was one of those small things that reminds me I’m not alone. I remember when I lived on my own in London several months earlier, everything would remain untouched in my room until I got back. There’s bliss in that. But it also confirmed every night that I had no one to talk to, except my neighbors at halls, who just like myself were not always around.
But now, my mom moves stuff around to “tidy up the room” (despite my repeated objections) and my cats love to ruin them for sport. They kick books off the shelves, show special interest in some of my belongings by scratching them to death or hide grapes in my shoes (for safe-keeping, I’m sure there’s a good reason). And when confronted, they always look up at me with those big round eyes as I tower above them, their stares carrying a mix of surprise and disappointment at being so gravely misunderstood.
And all these are little reminders that I’m cared for, that I matter, even though those closest to me never fail to irritate me. But these irritations, and even criticism and mockery, again confirm that I’m not alone. During an interview for an acting workshop, the trainer asked me if I had any friends, I said, “not really.” A day later, I recounted details of the interview to guess who? yup, my friends, and I received a deluge of jeering and scoffing, and of course the question that reared its head was “Then who are we?”
Cornered, I responded: “You’re not my friends. You’re my best friends. Different!” And all jokes aside, part of me was very honest about this. Those friends who have known me for years and years, sometimes since childhood, are not “friends” per se, they’re more like family, and with that comes the eternal commitment to being with them, around them, even if we’ve lost common grounds and even if we’ve got nothing more to talk about. The years bind you together. Being comfortable in their company is granted, but like with family, you can easily slip into that cursed feeling of loneliness even when among them.
When I tried to explain this, one of them suggested, “sometimes I think you’re lonely because you take your problems too seriously. You think too much about them. Other people may have the same problems but then their approach is different, so they become less sad, less involved in their own worries.” She may be right.
An article by Robert Rowland Smith on being lonely said that this feeling is actually healthy because it means there’s a need for people, it means we appreciate people and that “shares a root with compassion.” Sure, it’s all beautiful.
But then what? That’s not a cure for the chronic loneliness, that might or might not go away when you’re with friends, a romantic partner, a sibling, sitting, sleeping, partying, travelling. And I’m not the only one who’s complained. People, successful, with jobs and wives or husbands, always busy, have also complained of the same problem; it almost seems like a new universal malaise (at least for those like myself, who’re living in big noisy cities, struggling for privacy and space, but also for people to *see* them). Everyone is not happy, and everyone feels alone even among people.
Do we – the lonely- hold any solutions to this? Do we even want solutions? Or is it the new “artistically romantic” thing to be lonely? The lonely successful man or woman? A notion like the “misunderstood artist”, or the “sad clown”? Are we deliberately holding on to solitude and the emptiness that accompanies it to satisfy a certain image that has been associated with being sophisticated or independent in this modern age? Is it some kind of an escape? Or perhaps a motivator for escape? May be an adaptation problem? A good excuse for withdrawing and refusing to bond with others?
At this point, I should suggest an answer or say something wise but nothing comes to mind. So I’ll stop writing
Listening to: the news on (or more likely the buzz coming from the) TV
… and this is not a song. We got a new TV in our office
Mood: wavering between bored and brooding
I came across this quote in Alain de Botton‘s book How Proust Can Change You Life which I’d just begun reading. In the second chapter, titled How to Read for Yourself, the author talks about how literature can make us feel at home everywhere, and cure us from loneliness if we find shades of ourselves and those we know in the characters we read about. His argument is, it expresses our deepest desires and our feelings far better than we would have, and it makes our antics and suppressed thoughts and unmentioned emotions more human. It teaches us we’re not alone in feeling or thinking this or that.
I related, finishing On Love only a couple of days earlier, I knew exactly what both Proust and de Botton meant.
Immediately, it brought to my memory a scene from the British play turned film The History Boys, when one of the professors explains to his student the value in reading about a similar experience:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
Going back to the friends who’re here to stay, which are my books, I’ve felt exactly that at times, that a hand was taking mine and squeezing it tightly, telling me I’m after all normal.
Listening to A Mansion Has Many Rooms, by Grail
and Bright, Bright, Bright by Dark, Dark, Dark
… I find it a good exercise, and I think it could help me recognize areas of thought I haven’t explored before. Plunging into uncharted territory and all that. If the question is too challenging though, there’s a good chance I may ignore it (my small brain can work out only so much). And if it’s too personal or rude, I may show claws.
But don’t let that hold you back, really, I mean ask me anything here.
*wide grin* —>> meant to give you a false sense of safety.
Warning: It’s sort of an experiment, so if it gets tiring, I may decide to disappear
Listening to: Where is my mind, Maxence Cyrin
Mood: Happy-Go-Lucky (surprisingly so)