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!

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Buffers, Les élus

Are some people addicted to suffering?

Psychologist and Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regine Olsen source: wikipedia

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

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

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

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

Buffers, Les élus

Do I come from a star?

I was reading through some of the posts on Evolver.net and http://www.realitysandwich.com, and this post reminded me of an old dream: discovering that I really don’t belong to this world, for some reason or another. Or at least that I don’t belong to the mundane version of it, which I’m living through right now.

Looking over my fantasies, whether that I discover that I’m a witch and get that long-awaited letter from Hogwarts, or to be hand-picked for a special league of chosen people (a select few who have access to the truth or who know better) like Neo and his buddies in the Matrix, or the fellowship of the ring in Middle Earth, or Alain Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the Watchmen, it was always about not being part of this life and not subscribing to this version of reality. Or not doing what other people are doing.

Perhaps it’s about wanting to discover a special talent, or a reason for living (an answer to the ages-old classic “why are we here?”).

But mostly, it’s also about being re-assured that my inability to adapt is shared by others, that there’s a reason for it; that I’m not anti-social, or a self-hating human, but that in fact I’m one of those few who were born different and shall live and die different, and who know something that others don’t. And of course, it all goes down to the chronic feeling of loneliness, which is bound to kill me some of those days if I don’t kill it. And to the conviction I’m always misunderstood, even by those closest to me.

The websites I was checking were all about changing the world, that “we are those we’ve been waiting for”, about sustainability, open-source economy, taking the human species to the next level, evolving our consciousness and connecting with nature. One of them is a social networking website that connects people who are part of this unified consciousness project. I didn’t understand many of the terms juggled between members, and I secretly smiled at groups carrying names like awakening the Divine Feminine.

Some of the members on it reminded me of a theatre professor that my sister loves to death. I remembered him because of his unique personal philosophy and unconventional religious beliefs. That professor, probably an atheist, believes that he’s among this unique breed of human beings who have migrated to Earth from another planet long ago for some mysterious reason, who are scattered across the Earth and who carry some sort of outer-planetary wisdom, and an invisible mark that they only can recognize. He’s not kidding. This breed is different, and they have the ability to know each other instantly, and the joy of meeting each other is incomparable, since their minds and their consciousness are enlightened, more evolved that regular Earthlings. He’s an artist, a dramatist, so this could all be symbolic, or not. If he believes he’s an alien, fine, as long as he doesn’t look down upon commons such as I (but he probably does anyway, and you know what? it doesn’t matter). The professor also believes that “his people” will come, from beneath the stars, to take him back one day, and then he’ll be at peace (Death?). It’s very poetic, and a wild thought sometimes crosses my mind, “perhaps I’m one of those aliens too. Perhaps that’s why I’m lonely. I haven’t found the others, my brethren, my people. Perhaps they will come back for me too.”

It’s a very condescending way of looking at the rest of the human race.

But tell me, have you never felt it too?

This feeling of exaltedness that comes with being lonely and being unable to fit in (on a global level), with being restless, with wanting to travel all the time in your head or physically through leaving the familiar places behind and treading where most people haven’t gone; this feeling of transcendence that comes with losing attachments, with thinking spiritually and philosophically about everything including your closest relationships, even your religion; with retreating and (as a friend recently put it), being an “observer of humanity” from a distance and only “occasionally socializing with humans.”

Do I come from a star?

I wish. It would explain a lot. It would re-assure me that there must be something out there to return to, to long for. Perhaps that’s why I love looking at the sky, perhaps when I do my mind wanders and my heart feels trapped not in wonder and not because I’m in awe by what the universe hides. Perhaps I’m simply home sick.

If you can relate, perhaps you come from a star too. Perhaps you’re one of us.

Listening to Gregorian’s take on My Immortal
Mood: indescribable

Buffers, Les élus

Young Reflections

A friend of a friend called Don Young wrote the following words and I found them to be an immaculate rendition of thoughts that haunt most of us, they touched me …

Young says, “We come up with rules, regulations and social norms for everything. We create these imagined realities for ourselves and then we read and write volumes upon volumes on topics such as how to find love, the rules of dating, the guide to successful marriages and so on so that we can learn how to do these things within the guidelines we have set out within our own imagined world …

The thing is though that shouldn’t these things be easy? Does any of it really mean anything when you really think about it? I mean, isn’t it all just really kind of silly, or is it just me?

Is it just me, or is everything and everyone just way too over complicated?

It seems to me that we need to eat, sleep and love … That’s it, that’s all. The rest is just a bunch of imagined nonsense that we create in order to give ourselves some sort of purpose or importance or justify our own greed.

If you really stop and think about it, does any of it matter? Is anything other than sustaining life and finding happiness simply in that, really anything other than nonsense? Ridiculous notions that we dream up as ways to separate ourselves from one another and waste our lives hoarding and hating and hurting each other; and for what? So at the end of our short little lives we can say we have won some sort of imaginary competition? So we can be dead and somehow feel better that our group has gained more ground over another?”

Listening to Brick City Love Song, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Mood: Thoughtful

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?