On the Road, Travel Writing

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.

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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.

Les élus, Travel Writing

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!

Buffers, Les élus

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Buffers, Les élus

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

Buffers, Les élus

Brooding Sentimentalities

This morning, I found a grape in my shoes.

It was a red grape. And I had a suspect in mind: my youngest cat. He likes to play with our food.

It made me smile, because it was one of those small things that reminds me I’m not alone. I remember when I lived on my own in London several months earlier, everything would remain untouched in my room until I got back. There’s bliss in that. But it also confirmed every night that I had no one to talk to, except my neighbors at halls, who just like myself were not always around.

But now, my mom moves stuff around to “tidy up the room” (despite my repeated objections) and my cats love to ruin them for sport. They kick books off the shelves, show special interest in some of my belongings by scratching them to death or hide grapes in my shoes (for safe-keeping, I’m sure there’s a good reason). And when confronted, they always look up at me with those big round eyes as I tower above them, their stares carrying a mix of surprise and disappointment at being so gravely misunderstood.

And all these are little reminders that I’m cared for, that I matter, even though those closest to me never fail to irritate me. But these irritations, and even criticism and mockery, again confirm that I’m not alone. During an interview for an acting workshop, the trainer asked me if I had any friends, I said, “not really.” A day later, I recounted details of the interview to guess who? yup, my friends, and I received a deluge of jeering and scoffing, and of course the question that reared its head was “Then who are we?”

Cornered, I responded: “You’re not my friends. You’re my best friends. Different!” And all jokes aside, part of me was very honest about this. Those friends who have known me for years and years, sometimes since childhood, are not “friends” per se, they’re more like family, and with that comes the eternal commitment to being with them, around them, even if we’ve lost common grounds and even if we’ve got nothing more to talk about. The years bind you together. Being comfortable in their company is granted, but like with family, you can easily slip into that cursed feeling of loneliness even when among them.

When I tried to explain this, one of them suggested, “sometimes I think you’re lonely because you take your problems too seriously. You think too much about them. Other people may have the same problems but then their approach is different, so they become less sad, less involved in their own worries.” She may be right.

An article by Robert Rowland Smith on being lonely said that this feeling is actually healthy because it means there’s a need for people, it means we appreciate people and that “shares a root with compassion.” Sure, it’s all beautiful.

But then what? That’s not a cure for the chronic loneliness, that might or might not go away when you’re with friends, a romantic partner, a sibling, sitting, sleeping, partying, travelling. And I’m not the only one who’s complained. People, successful, with jobs and wives or husbands, always busy, have also complained of the same problem; it almost seems like a new universal malaise (at least for those like myself, who’re living in big noisy cities, struggling for privacy and space, but also for people to *see* them). Everyone is not happy, and everyone feels alone even among people.

Do we – the lonely- hold any solutions to this? Do we even want solutions? Or is it the new “artistically romantic” thing to be lonely? The lonely successful man or woman? A notion like the “misunderstood artist”, or the “sad clown”? Are we deliberately holding on to solitude and the emptiness that accompanies it to satisfy a certain image that has been associated with being sophisticated or independent in this modern age? Is it some kind of an escape? Or perhaps a motivator for escape? May be an adaptation problem? A good excuse for withdrawing and refusing to bond with others?

At this point, I should suggest an answer or say something wise but nothing comes to mind. So I’ll stop writing

Listening to: the news on (or more likely the buzz coming from the) TV
… and this is not a song. We got a new TV in our office
Mood: wavering between bored and brooding

Into the Trenches, Les élus

I wrote this for him

I was sitting at this concert at Darb 1718 watching ‘El Dor El Awal’ whisk people away with their tunes to a far away world, when I remembered him.

His name was Khaled Mohamed Sai’d and he was beaten to death by two police officers. The reasons why are not important and, at least to me, irrelevant.

I had read the news this morning, and saw the pictures, they have shaken and disturbed me. But here I was on the same night, lying on the grass, listening to good music, laughing with my friends, playing with my hair and clapping and cheering for the band, as if no great injustice has befallen an innocent man. And it’s natural, I never knew him. And I won’t pretend that the news had affected me or stayed on my mind beyond a mere two or three hours after reading about it. Next week, I’ll probably forget him completely and the week after perhaps the name won’t even ring a bell — and mind you I’m a journalist so it’s not like my work doesn’t involve following up on these cases. However, there’s a big chance everything will be forgotten anyway and so it follows that his story might not be “sexy” enough (in journo lingo) to follow up on in a week or two.

But for a moment, I thought: What if I really cared? What if we all did?

What if the band, instead of playing, had come to the microphone to announce that Khaled had died brutally and so they will withhold their music until justice has been brought to his family, and to us?

What if we had decided to strike, not to go to work, not to buy or sell, or visit friends or watch TV or go to the movies until an investigation is held into his murder?

What if tomorrow no one showed up for Friday prayers and sheikhs gave angry sermons against our rulers to empty mosques in protest of this inhumane killing?

What if we all decided to wear black in mourning?

What if we brought everything to a standstill until we’re told why a young man’s bones were broken, face battered until every last breath left him and why on Earth is his assaulter running free?

But of course we wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t. Who does that anyway? And if we did that for every injustice that has befallen man, maybe life would have stopped … or maybe it would have been perfect. But we won’t know really.

And perhaps if I didn’t work in news, I’d forget about him tomorrow.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?

Buffers, Les élus

High Heals

This was my first acting workshop. During the interview, I bluntly explained to the trainer that I have no acting experience, no interest in the art beyond observation and that I do not intend to become an actor. When he asked me, why I was there, I simply answered, “as a confidence exercise” and that was that.

I was on time for the first class, so were a few other participants. As we waited for others to arrive, a conversation with another participant, a psychologist called Maram began. She was there for “boosting confidence” as well, besides vocal training and blocking exercises, and I was re-assured I wasn’t the only one seeking this fleeting, almost abstract notion.

Maram said she specialized in psychosis but she’s also a relationship therapist; I’m not sure if that has a clientèle here in Egypt. I’d imagine that couples having relationship problems would opt for consulting friends, family members, websites and people like Marwa Rakha, experts only by trial-and-error and not by scholarship. But her clinic seems to be thriving, at least according to her.

She started telling me about how this was not her first stab at acting, that she began “drama” exercises first with a psychoanalyst called Dr. Sherif Fadel, who uses psychodrama as a way of therapy. She explained that a psychologist named Jacob Moreno had invented this method, using theatre for mental and psychological healing. I’d never heard of the method before, as she told me and the few others who were listening how people can overcome painful experiences through re-playing them on stage. “It helps you look at a situation differently. Some people have a breakthrough in the way they think as a result.” The situations and role playing are often based on true events, but they don’t have to be necessarily factual, there’s space for improvisation and interpretation. To be honest, I thought the idea was brilliant and I made a mental note to try and interview Fadel for a story. Another psychotherapist walked in, but this girl was younger, perhaps 24 or 25. I began to think about the people that this art attracts. I couldn’t make generalizations on the spot, and I’m glad I haven’t. In addition to the young psychologists, there was a model present (she chatted a bit about modelling in Egypt and how she eats all she wants but still manages to stay thin). As more people walked in and introduced themselves, it was clear that the group of ten, despite being all young, were more diverse  that I had initially thought.

The hall where we began the workshop was dark, as classic music wavering from thundering to soft and meditative, played in the background. The first section of the workshop was like a Yoga class. Actually, I felt more like I was in a Buddhist retreat, as everyone stood there in the darkness, in a circle, focusing on balancing their energies through breathing, humming and NOT thinking. Eyes closed, I could feel something flowing through me. In a long time, I hadn’t felt my body as such. It was a silent meditation on the inner space, a journey within, as you tried to feel your body, limb by limb, bit by bit, fingers, shoulders, hands, backbone, feet, legs, toes.

It felt like my body was asleep for so long, and that then it was awaken. I enterprised and imagined the energy as light moving through me, healing as it flows, shinning through my skin and that suddenly I was overflowing as others were with this light. My feet held me strongly, I felt my weight, but I also felt light (and light-headed). As if my head was up there in the sky (longing for it), and my feet were deeply rooted in the Earth. And I became unaware of space or time anymore, only of being. It was strange. And all my worries seemed to be in a past that I was disconnected from,  a past that might have well happened a hundred years before I was born. I was not there. I was here. Christian, Muslim Sufi and Buddhist-like chants reverberated across the room, and vibrated through my body as I took part in them. The sounds were coming from deep within me, and through me and around me. I wondered if you have to be a believer to feel this effect. And I questioned why I hadn’t meditated for long. When it was time to be “awakened,” I decided I’m absorbing this light back into my body, into this small bundle that I’m keeping within me, as a source of protection. I remembered a recent trip to Sinai, where at many points butterflies were fluttering around me (well, and probably others, but I chose to ignore that) and decided to believe the myth that butterflies come to healers, and so it follows that I was one.

Second exercise was about movement: how to awaken the body from this trance and control it. “If you can’t move slowly, if you can’t walk slowly, if you’re unable to slow down at will, then you’re not in control,” bellowed the trainer. I tried to keep the motion slow, but my knees started becoming wobbly and my body was not responding as I’d wanted to. It was indeed about control and at this point I realized that it was my head and body that were leading me, not I them. And it does look like I’ll need some training before I can be in control.

Next were eye contact exercises. Keeping eye contact. Locking eyes with the person for the purpose of knowing them, without body-language, without frowning or laughing, or moving a lot. Being comfortable with looking in the eye, in addition to watching the face, communicating without talking, which was also the next exercise; “send the person a message with your eyes. Speak. tell a story. Repeat the message.” I played with that for a bit. But for me, it was as much about communication as it was about observation. I barely remembered people’s names but watching them, I felt a little bit connected to them, and above all I appreciated them.

At that moment, I remembered my trip back from London, three weeks back, when I decided to switch between on-flight movies, watching the actors faces instead of the stories. I tweeted about it a day after I got back. And this is what I said back then:

“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.”

(The rest of my thoughts are here)

I felt something similar during the exercise. Suddenly, every single person that I gazed upon looked much more beautiful than when I’d seen them less than an hour earlier. Some’s personalities – or at least vibes- seeped through their eyes. Some looked away, couldn’t keep the eye contact, some were more daring. Some looked intimidated, some intimidating, some pained and some reluctant and hesitant. But it was all beautiful. It was like looking at a deep well, a store of secrets and non-secrets … or perhaps a painting, trying to understand what the painter is trying to say but also projecting your own understandings, insecurities, fears, likes, dislikes and questions.

Next was role playing, “proper acting”, all improvised. You had to go in minutes from pretending you’re doing final touches to your ‘best friend’s’  hair on her wedding day, to relaying bad news to a colleague, to trying  to act all girlish and soft while making up with your ‘boyfriend’ (always difficult when you barely know the guy :D) to consoling your daughter who just broke up with her fiancé and is crying her eyes off (I have to say the girl doing the daughter opposite me was very good) — all the while while trying not to give your back to the camera. It all went from difficult, to boring to hilarious, especially as people either laughed or took themselves too seriously. At points, my voice was obviously (and embarrassingly so) shaking. And at a certain point, I had to stop and tell the guy who was doing one of those two-minutes scenes with me to head this way so we won’t give our backs to the camera. And he did so, without getting out of character. By the way, I also failed to mention I was the least experienced, but this might be clear by now, and in some instances, I was ostensibly (and unashamedly) scared.

The class went on from one exercise to another, ending with the most difficult of all: recounting a painful experience, “something so painful that the memory could make you cry” in front of the group as they were instructed to cut you off, make fun of you, ridicule you and try to drown your words. “It’s all about concentration. No matter what your colleagues do, you have to tell your story, with the same intensity, till the very end,” explained the trainer. I decided to talk about body issues, the most personal of issues for me, and about how I struggled with my body image -and still do. It was liberating to shut off the noise. The participants apologized to each other after this exercise.

“Were we too hard on you?” asked one of them laughingly. Well, I didn’t even hear anything they said. “Would you believe me if I said I heard nothing of what you said?” Another one agreed saying that he too had to stop listening to concentrate.

The biggest struggle for me was not to shut off the sound, that bit was easy, but to go on telling my story as the noise continued. Because even if you don’t hear what people are saying sometimes, even if you shut them out, it’s still a struggle not to be forced into silence.

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me, so the saying goes. The last was an exercise on precisely this.

To be honest, I can’t wait till next week.

Books That Inspire, Les élus, Travel Writing

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/

Les élus, Travel Writing

Near Southern Borders

The Halayeb triangle, Shalateen and Elba soon turned into a dream destination for me and my travel partner Amr El Beleidy for the sole reason that they seemed to be untouched spots on Egypt’s map.

Because of border disputes with Sudan, the area was closed off to many “intruders” and was off-limit to foreigners who had no business being there. Perhaps only environment-related research, and a combination of nepotism and haggling can get you near that strip of land. We were lucky to be allowed into Shalateen and into the mountains to its West – both full of stories, difficulties and a different kind of magic. Badriya, the feisty 4X4 Land Rover discovery we both love, happily took us there. The 1000-km drive south was well worth it — despite losing our way, our car lights failing us in dark winding roads and in spite of getting behind on schedule a few times. And we tweeted, using Badriya’s Twitter account, about all that and more.

But in retrospect, it was all so much fun. We tried to out-smart a high-ranking army official to our failure and embarrassment, we made friends with local police officers, two of them over-concerned with “marriage and dating”, we learned about making henna and dancing with swords. We attended a tribal wedding, walked through Roman temples and past ancient water wells tucked away in the mountains of Wadi el-Gemal, home to the largest population of gazelles in Egypt, and we hunted –with our cameras– a few of those.

The daily camel market was no less remarkable, with the massive camel traffic coming all the way from southern Sudan on foot and further north into Egypt on trucks.

And perhaps the most worthwhile part of the trip was speaking with the locals, whose lives are caught in the middle of a border dispute between Egypt and Sudan.

Our trip was worth documenting, in our humble opinion, and we decided it was even worth a travel series. You can read our stories on Al-Masry Al-Youm English website. You need only to click on the Shalateen and Back Again banner to access the latest instalment of the southern adventure.

These are the stories published so far:

  • A hunt for adventure, fun and facts in the southern mountains: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/26118 (A short introduction to the series)
  • Married to Tradition: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/26323 (the product of an exciting conversations with young locals on issues of the heart; love, dating and marriage)
  • Shalateen: Growing up between a rock and a hard placehttp://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/36282 (a meditation on the past, present and future of this unblemished town)
  • The Long Drive Down: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/37588 (The roadtrip begins here, how we went from picking a spot on the map  to actually making the 1200-kilometers drive to the deep south happen)
  • The Hunt for Truths in a Far-off Town: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/39212 (We finally arrive at Shalateen. Read about how we tried to play “good cop, bad cop” with the military and how it backfired, how our first (forced) friendships were with undercover policeman and security officials. We share our first impressions and show how the presence of two strangers disturbed the peace in the small town)
  • Swords, Shields and A Whip: A Beja Wedding Night: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/40980 (This is where we recount our search for gold, and our memories of a very special Bedouin wedding in the mountains)
  • Saying Farewell to the South: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/42541 (We explore ancient Roman lodgings and temples, we hunt deer with our cameras, sleep under the stars only to wake up to find ourselves surrounded by border guards)

Companion pieces
Skills learned from Bedouin men and women:

In Pictures:

Video:

  • Wedding Dance of the Beja Tribe: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/40195 In the heart of the mountains south of Egypt, we attended a “Beja” tribe wedding. Here we record one of the Bedouin ceremonial dances we witnessed and share our impressions.

We were also inspired to write blogs posts, jotting down our own impressions of the area, its people and the common issues we both face:

Follow the travellers on Twitter:

Amr – @beleidy

Pakinam – @pakinamamer

Badriya – @Badriya4X4

Les élus, Travel Writing

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”

Les élus, Travel Writing

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!

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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.