Untraversed roads & the trappings of a digital world

Taken during a trip to Wady El-Rayan, Fayyum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road to Al-Kufrah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light games

At the third acting workshop this week, light was the star.

We’d moved to a theater in downtown for our training, which is the venue we’ll using from now on. The blackbox we used yesterday is definitely much more equipped and spacious than the studio in Mohandiseen. I’d been moved to a new group, mostly all younger and the girls are more giggly, but they’re just as fun as the first ones I’d trained with. Fun to be with, and even more fun to watch (Yup, some scorn seeped into that last sentence there. I’m not good, I know!).

After the usual meditative and slow movement exercises, we started some light games. Trainer operated the light board, and along with the haunting music, he started switching on and off spots, increasing and decreasing the light intensity, asking us to pay attention to the light, interact with it, move around it, bask in it, watch the rays fall on our bodies and glare into our eyes, stop and talk to it in short sentences without over-acting or saying something that we didn’t actually feel at the time.

It was like a surreal dance as people moved slowly, ventured into the light, covered their eyes from it, explored the darkness around it, watched it, shouted at it, whispered to it, and on and so forth. Slow motion was key there, also keeping the concentration gained from meditation exercises was important. Moving around the room, you were supposed  -through light and darkness and how your body felt as you moved- to explore the space you’re in. Feel it through moving in it.

You’re required to be in your head, in your body, aware, vigilant, yet honest and in touch with your feelings while keeping the calm and the transcendence that has been previously infused in you in previous exercises. At times I was struggling; I didn’t realize (until I started to attend these classes) how “scattered” I am.

It was like trying hard to contain your soul and mind, consciousness, within your body, as they keep slipping away. Anyone out there know how this feels? How difficult it is to be one?

It’s like when we stand in prayer sometimes and fight to enter our inner space while being aware of what we’re saying and doing, with eyes wide open. If anything, this validated my idea that living in the city corrupts. We can’t be still inside anymore, and it’s a constant struggle to be whole … complete, body, mind and soul.

You pull yourself together. You fall apart. You relax. Only to get tense in moments because of the smallest distraction. You enter that empty space in your mind. Then something pulls you out, a thought, a memory or a speech that goes on in your head between you and “the other” (the Voice?).

In brief moments, the light intoxicated me, and there’s something weird that happens when you finally look into the source of light in a dark room; it’s like looking into the face of God … you suddenly feel the desire to confess something, as if this artificial light at its most intense can see through you. As if the light already knows what’s being whispered inside your soul.

Poetic and melodramatic? Of course. My mind knocked itself out. It’s a drama class. And there was no better time to indulge in pseudo-philosophical thought.

The next exercise was based on improvisation again, and assuming characters. And it turned out to be much harder than I thought it would. Four chairs, one white and three black ones, were placed centre stage, light flooding them amid a patch of darkness. The white chair is occupied by one of us, a guy or girl, and the rest by members of the opposite sex. I was chosen twice for this one. In one scene, the guy occupying the chair was to play a boy who dated the three girls occupying the other chairs at certain junctures in his life. The situation preceding the meeting was not spelled out, but they were somehow trapped now into sitting together.

They all loved the boy while dating, he was selfish and nonchalant to their feelings, scornful of romance, in short a typical player. They were wounded and hurt, and now for some game of fate the girls are all friends. You’re not supposed to attack him, or touch directly on the issue, but instead use body-language and implicit references to get back at him.

It went horribly! (in my very humble opinion) The conversations were superficial, gestures exaggerated. You know how bad acting goes? Add to that uncreative, self-conscious improvisation and lack of experience, and you get the picture.

The opposite happened, and I was chosen for the white chair, the self-centered girl who played with the others’ feelings and now feels no remorse but almost amusement and a touch of embarrassment for running into people she used and abused emotionally.

Damn it!

What do you dig out in order to conjure up such feelings?

In my head, I couldn’t evoke one situation where the setting made sense. It made me wonder about the mental and dramaturgical powers that some might gain from being betrayed, heartbroken, from playing with people’s feelings and from manipulating, hurting and being hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I have no envy for those whose hearts were wrenched and minds blown apart in relationships. But suddenly, I appreciated certain human experiences, and how useful they could be in such professions.

Since we all went wrong, we were lectured for half an hour on why we did. Mostly, we couldn’t appreciate silence in such situations, and we couldn’t use the body and the eyes to communicate messages. And we should have.

The trainer said some words at the end, that sounded magical to my ears (simply because I agreed wholeheartedly): “People in the city have forgotten how to become silent. We’re flooded by so much noise that we always need the feel to speak out, to hear our voices. The intensity that comes with silence is sometimes much more powerful that the one that comes with speech and blabbering. Silence is a statement too.”

Listening to: ElTanbura (as recommended by Ashraf Khalil. Find them on YouTube)
Mood: that calm that comes with finally letting go

Loving all that lives …

… in nature. And it even has a scientific name: the “biophilia hypothesis” which says that there is an “an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems,” between man and nature. According to wikipedia, it’s Edward O. Wilson who introduced and popularized the hypothesis in his book entitled Biophilia – meaning “love of life” or “love of living system” and it’s Erich Fromm who first used it to describe the psychological orientation towards all that is alive and vital.

And the ‘philia’ is not only towards nature, as in forests, the desert, or parks or but also towards the weather, wind and rain, and animals (I’m thinking that means all animals so I imagine the philia cannot to be properly adopted by people who like “dogs but not cats” or “cats. I hate dogs”, or “red squirrels not grey because grey eats whatever and disturbs this or that food cycle” to the end of those silly arguments).

I was thinking that’s a good explanation for why some of us long to the desert, or develop this urgency or need to climb a mountain and stand on top, or feel called to go to a forest and hide beneath its thick, winding trees or get momentarily lost in snow. And no wonder why people who respond to those calls from the stars, the desert or the raw Earth feel different, energized, empowered and special – as if they were chosen to go there, as a fellow traveller has eloquently put it during a recent hiking trip in Sinai. But it looks like everyone is called, through this invisible umbilical cord that ties us to Mother Earth, but few respond.

Tree hugger talk, I know. But the question that comes to mind is why many of us fail to recognize this tie with nature and the animal world, a tie that seems to be born with us. What blinds us? What distracts us, and then what calls us back? Why have we lost the ability to connect on that level? To stand in the Sahara and breathe in the silence, instead of being intimidated by it, instead of standing on a mountain and shouting “Is there any body out there?” Is it a coincidence that the Little Prince has found his salvation, the clarity to recognize his destiny, in the desert, all alone with the emptiness, a fox and snake to guide him, and the promise of a well -water- nearby? I’ve asked that question before in my post Man, the friend of Silence but so far I have not found an answer.

Is it only in nature that we can find ourselves, the Truth? Or is it when we’re alone in nature? Is connecting to the Earth and being alone, perhaps even lonely, conditions for appreciation of life, of others, for recognition of our fault, failures and shortcomings, and for recognition of what is important and what is really of consequence?

Why is it painful to be alone and away then sometimes?
Why does silence intimidate?
Why does the desert at night, the endless dunes of sand, or the tall-as-sky mountains scare and awe us?
Why does the sea inspire fear and mistrust, why does it hold a type of treacherous beauty and uncertainty?
Why does the Sahara, instead of opening our eyes to the beauty of our inner space, stir up memories of things that never will be?
Why does the rain make us sad, and the snow makes us lonely?
Is it city life that corrupted us as such?
Have we moved so far from the sea that we don’t recognize it any more?
That we don’t know how to love it?

Listening to Une Chanson Pour Tout Dire, Eli et Papillon
and Maybe Findland, Snow and Voices
Mood: Grateful, Calm, and longing for the desert during wintertime

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