Why do I travel? To think

In solitude travel, we see the invisible

This the curtain-raiser for a series that Al-Masry Al-Youm Travel, which I’m heading, has recently launched. With a new voice every week, writers offer their reflections on the reasons why people leave behind familiar settings, friends, and perhaps even family members and beloved pets, to explore new places, away from home.

I jumped on the early train to Minya minutes before it started moving, after pushing my way through the crowd at Cairo’s main railway station, where the hustle and bustle begins in the early hours of morning and almost never ceases.

I’d barely slept a few hours. Insomnia, coupled with an obsessive thinking that usually precedes my trips–on planes or trains, highways or boats–had left me looking like a zombie, disorientated, and wondering why on earth I was traveling. Minutes earlier I had been scrambling to find the right platform through half-sleepy eyes and a self-induced haze, my mind clouded.

So why do we travel?

To escape. To forget. Or perhaps to remember the things we push back into our memories during the rattle of daily city life as we juggle family commitments and work, haggle to get things done, and try to meet deadlines that pass rapidly by as we try not to lose our sanity. Perhaps it’s to preserve those subtle differences that separate us from walking, talking machines.

Or perhaps we travel because we have to.

In travel, we’re separated–not only from what we love, but from what we hate, and what we fear.

Psychologist Eric Fromm once wrote that the deepest need of man “is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness”–because, he says, this separateness creates anxiety, and “the world can invade me without my ability to react.”

But maybe separateness is essential from time to time, facilitated by travel, precisely so that we can be invaded, by sights, sounds, ideas and people. In our vulnerability, we may realize who we are and what truly holds us together. We can start re-evaluating how we see the world. Our faith may be shaken or broken, or made stronger, depending on the outcome of the experience.

It’s a test of whether or not what we consider important has any meaning at all. Indeed, it’s a gamble.

And it is scary, because we may discover we’re holding on to an illusion, or on our return we may look differently on what we once considered of utmost importance.

Like any journey, toward the self or toward God, the truth can be too hard to handle. And once known, it can never be unknown. Done but not undone, like our past mistakes.

Perhaps travel, in that sense, is a mistake. Because opening your eyes, or Seeing, with a capital “S”, becomes a life-time sentence.

And so in deciding to travel, we’re torn apart by a desire to escape from our reality, and an equally strong desire to stay put and escape from the journey we’re embarking on–or at least from the memories, thoughts and questions it might provoke. The push and pull between the two forces decides what we do in the end.

Why do we travel?

To think. I took the window seat on that train to Minya, rested my head back and breathed. Thinking is different on trains, I thought to myself, as I stared through the window watching the cities, towns, countryside, and the world rolling by.

I pulled out my notebook to review my research for the assignment I was heading to Minya for, and to jot down a few extra questions.

Perhaps separateness is essential, facilitated by travel, precisely so that we can be invaded

I was traveling there to do a piece on sectarian clashes. Relations between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt are tense, and since the 1990s violence between the two has been on the increase. My visit would include meetings with church officials and members of the Christian community, and I thought about how this was another exercise in getting people to talk and open up, despite the possible security threat.

Assignments away from home have a different flavor. At home, conversations, interviews and communications are muddled with worries, plans unfulfilled and things to rush to.

Away, we listen. We wake up early every morning, full of a new-found readiness to discover. Distance changes the way we look at what time has turned mundane, including the work habits we have fallen into.

Sources become people, assignments become stories, and “quotes” take on a human shape –the shape of the zeal, happiness, sadness or indifference with which they are uttered.

We’re alone, so we listen.

But I never opened my notebook throughout that train ride. I just looked through the glass window.

As scenery moves quickly to the backdrop of the world, all loses meaning, except those things that truly matter. These stay.

And they fill you with both reassurance, and a measure of sadness, a nostalgia mixed with a longing for freedom. The freedom that comes with separation. The freedom that hurts and liberates. The sister of loneliness.

It’s freedom from the very things that own and move us, from the angels and demons of human relations and what ties us to each other and to the world. In solo travel, on the road, we’re just us.

Thinking is different on trains. In moving. In the departure. In the journey. In the return. Or the no return. In the solitude.

The problem is that I manage, consciously or not, to leave a bit of myself behind everywhere I go. In the train. In the destination. In the people I come in contact with. In the higher levels of thoughts, and in their lowest.

Perhaps that’s why I’m never complete in stillness. And my mind can never go blank, even during an event-less train journey.

Perhaps that’s why I travel.

To think.

Readers of Al-Masry Al-Youm are encouraged to contribute by reflecting on their own journeys and telling us why they travel, either by sending their stories to pkamer@almasry-alyoum.com, or sending a direct message showing their interest to @AlMasry_Travel, by registering to the site and writing a blog or by leaving their comments. Also, my friends and readers of this blog, are welcomed to write guest blogs telling me why they travel and sending them to me here. You can leave them as comments on this post, and I’ll moderate and publish them.

Closet Existentialism

On Thursday I had a wedding.

Don’t like them. They’re noisy, packed, impersonal, pretentious and showy. And watching the sweat-drenched attendees wriggle and dance themselves dizzy, all the questions of “Why are we here? Who made the world?” come rushing into my head.

It’s safe to say I haven’t attended a wedding that I liked in years.

But this was a good friend’s and I’d promised myself that I have to at least make an appearance to friends’ weddings or no one will show up in mine (if I ever have one!) So that was that, and I decided I’m in this time.

But it wasn’t that easy of a decision. For a whole week before the wedding, the question would cross my mind. It would bring back memories and horror stories, and I know I’d been avoiding it for a while. It haunted me, but every time it did, I would kick it back into the back of my head, thinking to myself, “I will sort it out tomorrow. Tonight, I’ll sleep peacefully. Tomorrow, I’ll think, I promise.”

The question? … What to wear?

Please, before you judge or jump to conclusions; I’m the last girl to care too much about clothes and appearances. Well, at least I was that last girl until a year or two ago, right before I secretly decided that I’d like (or at least I’d like to pretend I’d like) to be choosier in what I don every morning or evening before I set foot outside of the house.

But every time I open my closet to check out the mismatched pieces of fabric inside, I’m faced with the horrible truth: I have nothing to wear.

Weddings used to make me sad, because they were reminders of a rather lacking and modest wardrobe

And I know all girls say that, but me, I, moi? I promise you, I really, really don’t have anything to wear. Or let me be more plain and correct here (since we can all safely assume I don’t go out naked): I have nothing decent to wear.

Not wedding-material at least (and I’m talking about the clothes, not me). As I looked at my closet (packed with trousers, all black, desert scarves, weird tops, muhajabat clothes, two sleeping bags, two or three pairs of washed-out jeans and did I mention the black trousers?), I thought about all those chances I had in London all throughout last year and before during trips to Italy, Beirut or Dubai to pack my bags and in turn wardrobe with some nice dresses that would make me look classy in a party (or at least not bring shame to my family and illicit weird looks from my friends’ friends). And how I wasted every chance.

Why? Body issues. I think part of me always thought I don’t deserve nice dresses. I remember that during shopping, I always found it a joy to pick and choose for my younger sister. And if she wasn’t with me on a trip, I’d do the job like a good sibling, and choose for her. She always loved my taste, I was a bit adventurous (read eccentric) in my choices and I loved to mix chic and boho. Sometimes, I secretly wished I was thin myself so I’d have enough room to maneuver in choosing my own clothes, instead of opting for whatever that hides my curvature and all those flaws that my eye immediately catch whenever I but glimpse my reflection in a mirror.

I can safely say I’ve lost some good weight, and fingers crossed (and mouth shut) I intend to lose more. This time, I’m intent on reaching my ideal weight and the look that will make me confident (since I did reach a point where I felt tired of being embarrassed by that ‘vessel’ that carries me around everywhere). But with the weight loss, I lost both kilos and half of my wardrobe; some clothes just look funny on me now.

So what did I end up doing this time? I waited till the morning of the wedding, decided I wasn’t going to panic, and instead act professionally. Those memories of similar situations (the tears before weddings where I was convinced I looked fat and “bee2a”, all the times I blamed my parents for my lack of fashion sense, all those party photographs where I looked like The Laughing Cow, the painful hunt from a prom and later graduation party dress) were pushed back, supressed, buried deep down, and set fire to. Those times are gone, I told myself.

First, I raided my sister’s wardrobe. Well, she carried some extra weight herself a couple of years back, and surprisingly I did find two dresses that looked alright and fit. But just to have more choices (acting professionally makes you demanding and haughty considering a day earlier I was completely desperate), I made emergency phone calls to my friends. I actually went as far as texting one of my sister’s best friends who’s a sucker for party wear and has a wide variety. My message was brief: “I need a dress for a wedding. Something black.” Before she had a chance to respond, I followed with another text: “I lost weight btw.” It was essential. For her, so she would know I can actually now fit into her dresses. For me, as an extra reassurance that I’m on the road to change whatever I hated (had issues with/felt insecure about) in myself.

Me is not written in stone. Me is an evolving thing, something that I have yet to discover, not something that I carry around or is bound to forever. Last year, I was the girl with major self-destructive body issues. Last Thursday, I was still insecure but with less weight on my hips I ended up with at least six dresses to choose from, all fit me and all looked alright. I painted my toes flaming red, wore my high-heeled sandals (instead of opting for the ballerinas as I always would) and I walked tall -mainly because of the heels- and proud (a teeny tiny bit). But it’s not because of who I am now, but because of the potential I felt I had in me.

Of course, all those fluffy inner-power love-yourself-for-who-you-are-blah-blah feelings are not permanent, they come and go. And I do end up sometimes in a puddle on the floor crying my eyes off because of the “long way ahead of me.” (I’m 3kilos away from my ideal weight, height minus 100 and all that. But I’m like 10-15 kilos away from my ideal look). I knew that, but I decided to indulge in the good feelings as they lasted, savour those moments that make me want to invest in my body and my self more.

The next day it was my sister’s best friend’s engagement party – yup, the same girl I called for help. And I had to be there – axing my travel plans for the weekend. And I dressed up again, and I conjured up all those me-myself-and-I-powers again and I ventured out there, making mental photographs of all those dresses that made me drool …

… Yup, I have decided I deserve nice dresses too, for a change. And you know what? I even have a folder on my laptop now titled “Being a girl project.” Yes, the nerd is me is taking the “beauty project” very seriously, with folders, notes, research, pictures and one big fat plan to make me thin.

And let the blogosphere be my witness, I will be (insha’Allah).

Ah, and that wedding? It was awesome! College mates who haven’t seen me for two or three years or so noticed the weight loss, to my delight. Those who haven’t seen me since college noticed the lack of the headscarf :S But it was all much fun. So was the engagement.

Good times, I tell ya. Good times.

And I’m not even sure whether it’s the times that are changing. Or is it just me.

Listening to: Girl, All My Loving, Hey Jude, Hold My Hand, by the Beatles (duh!)
Mood: Thankful

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.