Into the Petrified Forest (not the one in Hogwarts)

Download the PDF version of this story with pictures here: The Petrified Forest – pdf

In this city, sometimes I feel like I’m watching people through a giant fish tank, one that I’m trapped in. Through the glass, I can see their lips move but I can’t hear a word. Other times, I feel like a solid object floating in a sea of noise — an incessant chatter. And I could hear neither my soul nor God. The universe is closed to me.

The Bedu, those who roam and wander in the desert (and we all know thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost”), are very silent people. When I meet some of them in journeys that go into the depth of the Sahara (Arabic for desert), I always regard their “silence” with a mix of envy, reverence and dread — the latter resurfaces when I remember my own episodes of silence. It’s not easy, sometimes, to be alone with your thoughts. We have also been conditioned to associate silence with loneliness, waiting — and worst of all– with separateness.

A pot of hot red tea mixed with "marmariya" herbs

Silence is a presence, and on that day less than a month earlier, I felt I craved it.

I was at a rowdy party with some friends, including a young avid traveller who takes frequent sojourns with his ghosts into the desert, when the notion of going away popped up. It began with the both of us saying that we miss the desert. “Do you want to go now?” He suggested. “Right now?” I asked, with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. We managed to find two other friends who would join on the spot, and a couple of hours later, we were heading to the nearest strip of desert in the vicinity of the Greater Cairo: The Petrified Forest.

It was a small spur-of-the-moment decision, and all we needed was an able 4X4, which my friend owned, some food, drinks and enough water. One of us had an iPhone to track our route once we’re on sand, and the friend with the car provided jackets for everyone. His car already carried a blanket, a head-torch and two carpets. A matchbox to light a fire using wood from the small ‘desert’ was all we needed.

Mind you, we were not all dressed for it — but this turned out to be one of the fondest memories of this small adventure.

In ‘V for Vendetta’, both the Graphic novel and the movie adaptation, there’s a scene where V’s girl Evey Hammond –played by Natalie Portman in the movie– ventures out on a balcony after a horrifying albeit liberating episode in her life. Under the pouring rain, Evey stretches her arms, soaking wet, and announces, “God is in the rain.”

I pondered.

God is in the darkness, I thought as my friend maneuvered traffic in Cairo with his bulky Wrangler, the music of Dream Theatre emanating from the vehicle’s stereo.

No, I corrected myself moments later, he’s in the singularity which encapsulates both the darkness and light, and all the opposites, the feminine and the masculine, space and sea, Yin and Yang, good and evil. He’s in the silence. And the silence is Him. Whoever is your God — even if it’s yourself– you’ll find Him in the desert, the silent womb that hides us from the world when it becomes too mundane, too un-God-like … too loud.

We were soon driving through the ‘circular road’ (al-da’ery) heading to what is crudely known in English as The Fifth Settlement or al-Tagamu al-Khamis, which the Petrified Forest is near. The ‘forest’ itself is a small protectorate surrounded in the distance by gated communities and some roads. But some parts of the forest are less elevated than others, drowned between small hills, so they hide any sign of civilization from view, including the nearby dirt roads.

The area is void of any flora or fauna — but insects and small snakes, and perhaps fennec foxes, have made appearances to visitors of this area. There are of course petrified trees, which the forest is named for — and if you are lucky, like my friend, you can find an ancient log of wood which you can carry or pocket (depending on its size) for keepsake.

Entering into the forest was a bit tricky, since the strip of desert was surrounded by small hills of rock. We scoured for a suitable entrance for a few minutes, driving along the stretch of sands on both sides of the road, before we found a small passage (for those of you who would like to visit. These are the coordinates of the entrance: 29°59’22.33″N  31°28’6.58″E. Use Google Earth). We were solo, and getting stuck alone was something we tried to avoid — our friend who was driving was confident he could press past a rather nasty-looking pile of rocky sand, very well near the entrance, which was what stood between us and the desert ahead.

But of course, the desert mocks in its own peculiar ways, and we were soon stuck, a minute later actually. Mind you, we left the party back in the heart of Cairo and went straight to the desert — without changing. So you can imagine how out of place I might have looked in that barren area, digging out sand from beneath the tires, in my short dress, coat, and ballet shoes, pushing and shoving rocks, along with others, and trying desperately not to make a hole in my favorite pair of pantyhose or chip off my fiery red nail varnish.

Four people, and it took us around 20 minutes to get unstuck, the last five of which, we were pushing the feisty vehicle like there was no tomorrow. Then again, the remote area near the suburbs of Cairo is infamous for thieves and pillagers, and we didn’t want to catch their attention so close to the road — where only a dull-looking tractor passed in the time it took us to release the car.

But the God who lived in the silence of deserts was generous, and we merged our wills with His, and after a thrust of force, the car moved past this spot reeling into the desert, its engine roaring triumphantly. Cheers and high-fives followed — the stress we all seemed to mask so well while we wondered minutes earlier “What if we can’t get out of this?” was released from bondage, and we were laughing with relief again.

Two kilometers in, we chose a nice spot to set camp — the flatest ground we could find– since sitting near a small hill or rocky pile meant insects and creeping lizards could pop out. One of our friends kept insisting that the area had ‘vipers’ — not a good thought when you’re already there. We soon brushed off the image of ‘vipers’ from our heads, instead diverting our attention to making a bonfire. We used wood from the area. We started brewing aromatic tea with “marmariya” from Sinai — its smell bringing sweet peace to our small gathering. The stars twinkled above, and the silence was … beautiful.

Nearing dawn, a fog started to creep in. So did the cold. I pulled a blanket tightly around me and was soon lost in thought.

A fog tip-toeing from all directions was a different sight in the desert — the white clouds created a surreal dreamy atmosphere as it hugged us and concealed everything else from view. At this point, we were all huddling in a small circle around a dying fire. The friend –the traveller– was struggling to keep the burning timber alight. He had once told me he liked looking at the light of fire. And it looked like, as he turned the wood, blew at the flames, and just watched it grow, that this was his form of meditation.

Bouts of silence punctuated the quiet chatter, and the stillness was a field of energy in its own right.

The desert, and its elements, teach you to love your mind, I thought. But you have to hate it first. You have to endure its venom, before you learn to forgive it. Unlike the heart, it’s the only piece of us that feels like someone else’s — like a different person. Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote that, “one must have ruined oneself for generations keeping a crumbling chateau in repair before one learns to love it.” My mind is this crumbling chateau, and in those hours, when I’m blessed with a friendly encounter with stillness, is when the repair takes place. I tell my thoughts I forgive them, and I love my ghosts, like Saint-Ex, “with the only love that matters.”

At some point, looking at the fog (or failing to look through it) as we sat in its stomach, I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, God was in the fog after all. Or maybe like religions profess, he’s everywhere — and the fog is his hand, reaching out.

Listening to: Radio in the a.m.
Useful tip: this trip can be made in Wadi Degla, however the gate closes at 5:00 pm there
Wants from the Universe: more travel, more stillness, more inspiration, Love and Light, as always. Friends.

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.

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!

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Enduring love, at least for now

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.

Boring?

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