Buffers, Les élus, Travel Writing

I turn my hourglass …

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

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

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

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

We travel, therefore we are.

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

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

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

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

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

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

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

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Buffers, Les élus

On Love — and not just in Saudi Arabia

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

The cover of "Love in Saudi" by Ibrahim Badi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s that.

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

Buffers, Les élus

Are some people addicted to suffering?

Psychologist and Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regine Olsen source: wikipedia

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

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

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

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

Books That Inspire, Les élus

Decoding suffering

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.”

Listening to Abbady Al Johar here (not for the broken-hearted or the distraught, lyrics beautiful tho) there, there, and there. This too (lyrics here) and finally this very heartfelt song (and words).
Mood: sombre

Recommended:
Alain de Botton’s On Love/Essays In Love
Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life

Books That Inspire, Les élus

Of finger-placing & the consolation of words

“I never expressed a desire to break up with her except when I was unable to do without her,” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time.

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
Mood: Pensive

Buffers, Les élus

In 140 characters or less

This train of thoughts formed a series of tweets, that I felt I’d like to preserve here, for how special the feelings this quiet and small experience evoked in me:

So I tried to tweet from the plane yesterday, but for some reason the tweets weren’t sent in SMSes through mobile
But our plane stood in the airport for an hour, while we’re on board, as it was being fixed. And they kept turning the engine on and off…
It was scary cos I thought there must be a reason why my flight was cancelled, [why] I rebooked in BMI, [that the] strike [was] called off, [for me to] return to BA [in the end] …
And my conclusion was, this plane is gonna crash (probably during take-off) and that I was meant to be on it, that was my death …
Quite dramatic, I know, but in some instances your mind sells you all kind of ideas, and depending on your belief system, you buy or not…
But nothing bad happened, and since there were only 18 people on the whole plane (after flight was reinstated), it was v. comfortable…
And I have to say I prefer night flights to morning ones. There’s something serene about flying high, and being embraced in darkness …
I enjoyed being alone for a first in a long time, away from all, stranded between earth & sky. I didn’t even feel like thinking …
I relaxed, watched bits and pieces of different movies, watching the movement of actors, their faces, without really concentrating on story …
Thinking there’s something graceful about humans when they speak, cry, scream, smile…
It’s beautiful to feel you can pay attention to this …
… and really take everything in, absorb people’s movement, watch it as if in itself it’s art.
A touch of hand, a twitch in the face …
and suddenly I felt I can relate to people. I’m not repulsed by others, I enjoyed their presence while enjoying being alone, simultaneously
At a certain point I switched off the main screen, and enjoyed the silence. I could see stars & the moon from my window cos plane was dark …
And I remember thinking that I haven’t seen the moon and stars above the clouds before. They must have been hidden to those on Earth …
and this realization (that they’re there even if we don’t see them) was comforting. I felt like a child again …
… My mind was clear for a while, which felt surreal and I wanted the flight to last longer and longer. I didn’t want to go back to Earth. I felt I belonged there …
The only other place that I felt might be a sanctuary (as I read Robert Twigger’s Lost Oasis) was the desert … and suddenly I didn’t feel like I missed London or wanted to escape back to it, but I looked forward to being lost in new places …
… to explore, to be with myself, to sit alone, to learn to look at the sky or at people and see, and I mean really see
Inspired by Rob, I made the decision to turn this into an adventure (or a dream to keep me going) & plan for a big break from my small world.
… Perhaps I’m meant to find this lost oasis, which many have failed to. I’m sure they all thought they’re the “chosen ones” …
… but I’m also sure, that despite not finding it, they found something else, perhaps just as enigmatic, & mysterious & precious.