Travel Literature: A two-hour journey

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

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

A Bedouin tent, near Shalateen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waters of a Fayyum Lake

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

And I wrote to my friend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untraversed roads & the trappings of a digital world

Taken during a trip to Wady El-Rayan, Fayyum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road to Al-Kufrah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Robert Twigger’s Lost Oasis

I typed up here the bits that touched or inspired me when I read them. I have only just started the book, so I suspect I’ll be updating this post as I read more.

“The desert was about the void, the zero point, shrinking yourself and your concerns in the immensity and emptiness of it all. The desert was about a definite psychological need for vastness in the face of human confusion, brain fatigue. Mind-bothered Western man can take drugs, alter his lifestyle, turn off the television, pierce his body or run a marathon, it all amounts to just so much therapy to keep him loping along the same track towards the inevitable finishing post. I saw the desert as a huge right turn, a different path, another way out of what everyone was into, the money, goods and attention conflicts of the current century. The desert cured the malaise, not just the symptoms. Somehow the vastness of the desert signalled the infinite present, nowness, headspace, instant immortality.”

“When the wind is low the desert is especially quiet. Noise, especially when you live somewhere constantly noisy like Cairo (it’s a gripe of filmmakers that Cairo is bad for filming because of the constant hum, whatever time of early morning you try to film you can never be rid of that deep city resonance, sixteen million people, the biggest city in Africa, just humming, humans making a noise like a giant hive; it was the reason I heard the English Patient wasn’t filmed in Egypt, the Cairo hum, always there, ruining any direct sound recording) you get so used to noise that when it’s not there you feel your body starting to expand, as if gravity is weaker, as if the lack of noise is causing your body parts, no, your very cells, to fly apart. It’s almost unbearable, just for a moment, before you get a grip and relabel it ‘relaxing’ or ‘absence of tension’, but the first few minutes when it hits you it’s terrifying, you begin to doubt that you’ll hold together. If feels as if without noise we will perish and expand, with the pressure off we’ll be like astronauts in punctured suits.”

“Now I was safe I could reflect on the intense burst of loneliness I’d felt, like the distilled essence of loneliness … Did I want to continue with this game? People who hate the desert – and there are plenty – must intuit this feeling before even visiting the place and, knowing it, leave well alone. But I was glad. It meant the desert, however man tamed it with cars and cool-boxes and GPS machines, still had teeth, was still a wild place where man went at his peril, had to have his wits about him. Man’s instinct is to diminish the desert, reduce its dangers, build a town at the oasis and connect it by phone, rail, air and truck to the next oasis. I wanted to reduce its dangers too, but only so far. In the past you’d be limited by what was available — camels and leaky water skins. Desert dwellers, the tebu, Bedouin and Tuareg, had all learnt to live with this fear. You would be judged irresponsible, by modern standards, if you wanted to recreate that danger, that balance of fear and possibility.”

The book itself can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Oasis-Adventures-Egyptian-Desert/dp/0753824051/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274553100&sr=8-1

And this is Twigger’s Explorer’s School: http://www.theexplorerschool.com/

Reflections on a Southern Marriage

By Amr El Beleidy
‘Along The Watchtower’ Guest Writer

People tend to think that their way of life is the best way to live, until they see a different way that impresses them. And sometimes we fall into the trap of being so self centered and closed minded that our baseline for what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad is whether it’s the way we do it or not. If it’s different it’s wrong. And people who fall into this trap never learn, because they are never open to anything new.

When we (I and Pakinam Amer, owner of this blog, follow her on twitter @pakinamamer) travelled to Shalateen on a travel writing assignment, we attended a wedding 180Km away from the town and into the mountains by pure chance. Naturally we started flooding our guide with questions about traditions and how things get done there. We were later invited by a group of young men to have some coffee with them on the beach, and the same topic came up again. The funny thing is that the topic of marriage kept coming up with everyone we met, including the plain-clothed policeman who stopped us in the market.

Then naturally me and Pakinam started discussing our findings. I think we already have different views on a lot of issues back here in Cairo (although to be fair, we do agree on a lot as well), which we are meant to understand best. But these differences and the differences in perception of what the locals where trying to say caused us to see things in differnet ways as well.

A lot of people will be tempted to think about which style of marriage is better, the ‘Open-minded’ Cairo style or the traditional tribal customs ‘Shalateen’ style. But define better. What makes a successful marriage? Is it the number of babies, I think most people would agree that the world has moved past this point. So is it happiness? Well, how do you measure that? And so the engineer in me thinks, that failing to define a concrete measurable value (or set of values) that indicate the quality of marriage, the question of which style is better will never be answered.

But there are advantages and disadvantages to all systems, and there are ‘myths’ that I would like to dispel about the Shalateen style of marriage. Naturally I will be speaking here from a man’s point of view.

1. It’s easier to find a partner

It definitely is. You have a limited choice of women, who a lot of them are very good looking, and so picking one does not take ages. If she refuses, then just pick another one. And if you don’t want to pick one, just talk about marriage in front of your parents and they will pick one for you, without you even asking.

2. Money is not an issue

As long as you are a good man, you pray and you fast, they don’t care what your financial situation is. Then the dowry depends on what you can afford, normally between 1000 & 3000 LE. When we wanted to tell them about the dowry’s in Cairo, we asked, how much is the most expensive dowry you can imagine, the answer was 5000 LE! And when told some moderate numbers, one of them exclaimed “Are you buying a car or getting married?” showing that for them buying a car is seen as the more expensive financial burden of the two things.

And buying the house is not a problem, get a piece of cloth, a number of sticks and you have your new tent. Are you getting richer, buy a shack down in the town and she will happily follow. No need for electricity, furniture and all that stuff. Maybe just a carpet not to sit on the sand.

3. The lack of strict commitments

It is definitely easier to commit to something knowing that you can get out of it. If you have a safety net in case you are wrong, then you will be more willing to take risks, and those who take risks sometimes achieve great things.

In Cairo, you have to pick the ‘right’ person, who ideally you will make a one time investment with, emotional investment, financial investment, time and health investment, and closing the door of marrying others. Divorce is a big deal as well, and naturally it should be, given the massive investment.

And thus, in Cairo we take forever to chose, but there, where class, age and looks don’t matter (they all follow the same religion, so that doesn’t matter as well), finding someone is far easier. When you may marry once more (without divorcing your current wife if you are a man), and divorce if either party is not happy without making anyone ‘used goods’ or having lower status then the decision to marry becomes easier. And so things move, people get married, divorced and married again. And if you are happy and satisfied with your marriage, even if everything says it should go wrong according to the ‘Cairo’ style then you just stay married and enjoy life together.

Cairo’s society putting strict rules on what will and what will not succeed is a self-fulfilling prophecy that many times have ruined what could have been happy lives.

The myth that women are oppressed:

If you ask me it seems like the men have a tough time there. People think the women are oppressed because they are forced into marriage, are not the first wife (while he is still marrying others), not allowed to go out of the house, etc..

The fact of the matter is they are not complaining.

Women in the mountains get very good treatment. One of the lads by the beach asked us a question, “Is it true what I heard that sometimes men in Cairo, insult and even hit their wives?” Another one answered with extreme conviction before I could even speak “No, no. There is no way it can reach hitting the women” and this answer came with a cringe of the face, this cringe you have when you think of something so disgusting.

And women in Cairo do get insulted, and do get beaten. Sure not all of them (that would be a bit crazy) but it happens, and it probably happens more than you think, because people will not go around saying their stories of hitting/being hit. So who is really oppressed?

The men there where complaining that the women were too shy, that it was difficult to talk to them, that if you were not from the close family circles they would never talk to you. The women are the ones who want it this way it seems.

At the wedding, the women did not want to get photographed, until the men told them off, for being rude to the guests who came all the way to attend the wedding.

It’s the women who want to stay in hiding, and not have foreign eyes look at them, and it’s a choice that we should respect and not demean in any way.

Women might be forced into marriage, but not to a particular man, and the men get forced too. Young people everywhere know of the pressures that parents put on them to partner up. It’s the same thing there, the whole you have to get married pressure. It just starts at a different age.

Many wives to one husband, no one is complaining. Just because women in some parts of the world do not like to share, doesn’t mean they all don’t. Given the circumstances there and the way of life, the women seemed at least not unhappy to share. It’s a different concept, and that’s all it is. Not oppression, not demeaning, just different.

Reminds me a bit of the Native Americans, how white Europeans could not understand how they did not have the concept of private property. How can you share your land with everyone else? Just a different way of living, if you don’t like it, don’t live there.

So if there is a lesson to learn from the tribal marriage traditions, it’s that putting too many restrictions on ourselves as a society ultimately makes our lives more difficult. The next time you hear of a partner combination you don’t like, stop, and let your prejudices go. You will make life easier for others, and for yourself as well.

——————-

Related Links:

Married to Tradition: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/married-tradition-shalateen

A Hunt for Adventure, Fun, and Facts in the Southern Mountains: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/hunt-adventure-fun-and-facts-southern-mountains

Pakinam’s take on marriage and relations in Shalateen and Cairo: https://pakinamamer.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult/

Related Twitter Accounts:

@beleidy: Traveller and writer, author of this blog post

@pakinamamer: Traveller and writer, owner of this blog

@Badriya4X4: The Landy who tweeted about the 1200-km deep south

@touringa: a free travel communities and tour hosting website that connects locals, travellers and adventurers. “Travel with the Tribe”

Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult

Relationships, that is.

The title of the blogpost is a quote from In the Loop, a Brit-American political comedy about the lead up to the Iraq war. It’s uttered by a hapless British minister lost at finding a way to remain neutral in the face of belligerent US politicians and military men divided over preventing or launching a war. The minister’s aide tells him that sitting on the fence is going to be “easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy” to which he responds, stumbling for words, that “No, it’s going to be difficult, difficult, lemon difficult” — which I find to be one of the most absurd and brilliant comedic lines I’ve heard in movies.

It’s also true of relationships. They’re DDLD — whether in Cairo, by the sea, in the mountains, at one end of Egypt or another.

A conversation that I and a travel partner (@beleidy on Twitter) had with young Bedouins during an assignment last month in Shalateen made me meditate on this more. After a stroll on the beach and a chit-chat with four young residents, we found ourselves giving “dating” advise to inquisitive strangers and sharing our insights into the differences between marriage in Cairo and Shalateen, almost 1000 km south and so practically at the other end of the country. It was an interesting conversation, which (at least for me) was steeped in innocence, simplicity, curiosity but also carried signs of confusion and a sense of entrapment. I may very well be projecting my own feelings of how complicated I find the workings of relationships between the opposite sexes in this city ‘that conquers’ – Al-Qahera- to be. But this is exactly the vibe I received.

The conversation inspired a whole article, which we decided should be the teaser piece for our travel package and which can be found here:http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/married-tradition-shalateen(“Married to Tradition”, published by Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition). And it often made me laugh when I remember it, and occasionally think, well think seriously I mean.

I’m not sure about my colleague, but I’m such a loser at relationships myself, I don’t know how they start or end, I don’t know anything about how to make them work and like in journalism, I’m often an observer not an actor. Because of this, I waver between many mixed feelings. I feel this aloneness, and I forget it. I let go then I worry. It gives me space, it suffocates me. It frustrates me sometimes. I’m not bothered by it at other times.  But it always makes me think, when I see others forging what seems to be eternal ties with loved ones, “What am I doing wrong?”

And so on that beach of Shalateen, when these young men seemed trapped in their own traditions of marrying cousins and marrying inside the tribe, I thought it was amusing that they were seeking answers from us.

We kept prodding ourselves. What if you decide to marry from Cairo? What if you like a girl from outside the tribe? What if this? What if that? And they indulged us as much as we did them.

And following a long conversation, there was a pause.

Despite how simple and cheap it was to get married, they were held back by ancient costumes — having your life partner chosen by parents and pre-decided for you.

But we are, it seems, held back by even greater forces, which are rooted in the idea of picking and choosing — finding the right girl or guy amid a myriad of choices that are not really choices when you think of them (everyone is “too” something for the other, too educated, too ignorant, too rich, too poor, too old, too young, too aggressive, too laid-back, too fat, too thin, too short, etc, etc). And of course by greater complications, which include family status, money or the lack thereof.

As I said, there was a pause. They weren’t impressed by the complexities that dating, relationships, “love” entitle for Cairiens despite all the apparent “freedom” we have. We, or at least I wasn’t happy with the sense of helplessness they seemed to have in choosing who to spend the rest of their lives with. They seemed to compensate for that by having the ability to marry more than one. It’s very easy (and in upcoming instalments of the Shalateen travel package, we will write elaborately on marriage and divorce in the tribe. The stories come out every Wednesday).

But it didn’t seem that our part of the deal had that appeal. Divorce and re-marriage is a big deal here, and for girls it’s still a small catastrophe to be divorced “or ditched” by the man across classes. It’s still a big deal if you choose out of the “mainstream”, like choosing someone of a noticeably different social background, from outside of the capital or someone who is several years younger, something that writer and relationship advisor Marwa Rakha writes about here: http://www.marwarakha.com/index.php?categoryid=25&p2_articleid=1021

Marwa, like many among us, screams at the small world we all float within, complaining of double-standards, of extreme lack of respect for privacy, of gossip and back-stabbing, and most of all of those who limit your choices by asking you to conform to a standard. As if you choose, borrowing from Neil Gaiman’s words, who “the stupid person” who stumbles into your stupid life and steals your heart will be.

In short, in the north, it seems a much more complicated affair than in the south, despite what it seems. We are similarly trapped, actually we’re in a worse situation.

At the end of our conversation on the beach, it seems that the Shalateen boys had secretly decided that relationship and marriage traditions in Cairo, the glittering capital reeking of  signs of ‘civilization’ and full of ‘free-spirited’ men and women, wonders, money, opportunity and choice, simply SUCK. And that perhaps in the mountains, it’s pre-ordained, but possible, as easy to get out of as it is to get into, simple, and unspoiled by material demands and needless pretences. And that perhaps we should chill a bit and enjoy what life has to offer instead of warping every good thing that comes our way.

Despite our levels of education, and if you’re so inclined, sophistication, we’re miserably looking for the other-half while being held down by our own lore and traditions, by our insecurities, doubts, loss of innocence, lack of faith and mistrust and while sifting through many distracting choices (so many that we don’t know what we want anymore).

We’re tired of convention too, but like the Shalateen guys, we’re too afraid to break ranks with the overwhelming mainstream. That’s why someone like Marwa Rakha who is past her 30, according to our lore, can’t fall in love with a man nine years her junior, and that’s why the AUC boy, according to golden rules, cannot marry a girl from Al-Azhar University, and that’s why the overweight geek can’t get the blond everyone wants, and that’s why this 29-year-old girl (who just realized that after working for a few years and completing her masters degree she wants to fall in love) should settle for an arranged marriage, “or we’ll all miss the train,” as the Egyptian saying goes.

That’s why it’s difficult, like lemons.

But Focket!

(like our lifestyle editor would say)

Screw those Egyptian-made rules. I’m not playing this game any more.

I want out!

—–

Related Links:

Hunt for Adventure, Fun and Facts in the southern mountains: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/hunt-adventure-fun-and-facts-southern-mountains

Married to Tradition: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/married-tradition-shalateen

Amr El Beleidy blogs about marriage, dating and relationships in Shalateen and Cairo:  https://pakinamamer.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/guest-post-reflections-on-a-southern-marriage/

Related Twitter accounts:

@pakinamamer: Traveller and writer, and owner of this blog.

@beleidy: Traveller and writer.

@Badriya4X4: a Landy who tweeted about the 1200-km journey deep south.