On Love — and not just in Saudi Arabia

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

The cover of "Love in Saudi" by Ibrahim Badi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s that.

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

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!

Decoding suffering

If you suffer, and you will (because who doesn’t?), then do it successfully, according to both Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. Drenched in sorrows, it’s easier of course to stay in bed, jump off a bridge than write a philosophy book. If you plan on ending your suffering once and for all (through say, setting yourself on fire, or drowning yourself in the bath tub), then fine, don’t try and get creative with how to ache. But if you’re not, you might as well use suffering to your benefit, either by creating a blog to tell about your experience, writing songs that breaks people’s hearts as yours have once been broken, becoming a motivational speaker, researching your pain and what it means, being inquisitive about life and the ‘big questions,’ whatever, the choices are endless. Proust chose to write books.

Proust was often sick, was unlucky in love and romantically pessimistic, un-comprehended by friends, over-protected by his mother, ignored by his father, had a failed career in theatre, but all this, if anything, has made him sensitive to the pains of others, and most importantly creative. He wrote: “A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomenon of memory.” According to de Botton, “Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation.”

Proust says, “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” He adds: “A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.”

I know what he means. During a bout of depression, I wrote a short screenplay that I still think could be developed and could perhaps stand a chance on screen in one of those days. When I’m grieving, my head is usually full of ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind. I can guarantee that most stories, poetry and songs that touched us hide wells of pain.

But what a price!

And this comes to mind when I remember tales of genius marred by conflict, manic-depression, drug use, unhealthy obsessions, suicide, heart-break and chronic grief. Virginia Woolfe, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (without his explosive on-again-off-again relationship with Consuelo, world war, loneliness, perhaps the Little Prince would not have come out), Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and if you will, Kurt Cobain and Eminem (sorry, but his songs get to me).

This leads me to a question that I have asked many times before: do we have to suffer in order to rise? Is it the old story of dying on the cross in order to transcend our ego and flesh, and become gods?

But that’s not what de Botton means of course. I’ve strayed a bit here. I believe his argument is, if you’re suffering anyway, you might as well learn, grow and create as you do. He says, “The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals.”

In addition, now in the words of Proust himself, “Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.”

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

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

Of finger-placing & the consolation of words

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

I came across this quote in Alain de Botton‘s book How Proust Can Change You Life which I’d just begun reading. In the second chapter, titled How to Read for Yourself, the author talks about how literature can make us feel at home everywhere, and cure us from loneliness if we find shades of ourselves and those we know in the characters we read about. His argument is, it expresses our deepest desires and our feelings far better than we would have, and it makes our antics and suppressed thoughts and unmentioned emotions more human. It teaches us we’re not alone in feeling or thinking this or that.

I related, finishing On Love only a couple of days earlier, I knew exactly what both Proust and de Botton meant.

Immediately, it brought to my memory a scene from the British play turned film The History Boys, when one of the professors explains to his student the value in reading about a similar experience:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

Going back to the friends who’re here to stay, which are my books, I’ve felt exactly that at times, that a hand was taking mine and squeezing it tightly, telling me I’m after all normal.

Listening to A Mansion Has Many Rooms, by Grail
and Bright, Bright, Bright by Dark, Dark, Dark
Mood: Pensive