On the Road, Travel Writing

Into the Petrified Forest (not the one in Hogwarts)

Download the PDF version of this story with pictures here: The Petrified Forest – pdf

In this city, sometimes I feel like I’m watching people through a giant fish tank, one that I’m trapped in. Through the glass, I can see their lips move but I can’t hear a word. Other times, I feel like a solid object floating in a sea of noise — an incessant chatter. And I could hear neither my soul nor God. The universe is closed to me.

The Bedu, those who roam and wander in the desert (and we all know thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost”), are very silent people. When I meet some of them in journeys that go into the depth of the Sahara (Arabic for desert), I always regard their “silence” with a mix of envy, reverence and dread — the latter resurfaces when I remember my own episodes of silence. It’s not easy, sometimes, to be alone with your thoughts. We have also been conditioned to associate silence with loneliness, waiting — and worst of all– with separateness.

A pot of hot red tea mixed with "marmariya" herbs

Silence is a presence, and on that day less than a month earlier, I felt I craved it.

I was at a rowdy party with some friends, including a young avid traveller who takes frequent sojourns with his ghosts into the desert, when the notion of going away popped up. It began with the both of us saying that we miss the desert. “Do you want to go now?” He suggested. “Right now?” I asked, with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. We managed to find two other friends who would join on the spot, and a couple of hours later, we were heading to the nearest strip of desert in the vicinity of the Greater Cairo: The Petrified Forest.

It was a small spur-of-the-moment decision, and all we needed was an able 4X4, which my friend owned, some food, drinks and enough water. One of us had an iPhone to track our route once we’re on sand, and the friend with the car provided jackets for everyone. His car already carried a blanket, a head-torch and two carpets. A matchbox to light a fire using wood from the small ‘desert’ was all we needed.

Mind you, we were not all dressed for it — but this turned out to be one of the fondest memories of this small adventure.

In ‘V for Vendetta’, both the Graphic novel and the movie adaptation, there’s a scene where V’s girl Evey Hammond –played by Natalie Portman in the movie– ventures out on a balcony after a horrifying albeit liberating episode in her life. Under the pouring rain, Evey stretches her arms, soaking wet, and announces, “God is in the rain.”

I pondered.

God is in the darkness, I thought as my friend maneuvered traffic in Cairo with his bulky Wrangler, the music of Dream Theatre emanating from the vehicle’s stereo.

No, I corrected myself moments later, he’s in the singularity which encapsulates both the darkness and light, and all the opposites, the feminine and the masculine, space and sea, Yin and Yang, good and evil. He’s in the silence. And the silence is Him. Whoever is your God — even if it’s yourself– you’ll find Him in the desert, the silent womb that hides us from the world when it becomes too mundane, too un-God-like … too loud.

We were soon driving through the ‘circular road’ (al-da’ery) heading to what is crudely known in English as The Fifth Settlement or al-Tagamu al-Khamis, which the Petrified Forest is near. The ‘forest’ itself is a small protectorate surrounded in the distance by gated communities and some roads. But some parts of the forest are less elevated than others, drowned between small hills, so they hide any sign of civilization from view, including the nearby dirt roads.

The area is void of any flora or fauna — but insects and small snakes, and perhaps fennec foxes, have made appearances to visitors of this area. There are of course petrified trees, which the forest is named for — and if you are lucky, like my friend, you can find an ancient log of wood which you can carry or pocket (depending on its size) for keepsake.

Entering into the forest was a bit tricky, since the strip of desert was surrounded by small hills of rock. We scoured for a suitable entrance for a few minutes, driving along the stretch of sands on both sides of the road, before we found a small passage (for those of you who would like to visit. These are the coordinates of the entrance: 29°59’22.33″N  31°28’6.58″E. Use Google Earth). We were solo, and getting stuck alone was something we tried to avoid — our friend who was driving was confident he could press past a rather nasty-looking pile of rocky sand, very well near the entrance, which was what stood between us and the desert ahead.

But of course, the desert mocks in its own peculiar ways, and we were soon stuck, a minute later actually. Mind you, we left the party back in the heart of Cairo and went straight to the desert — without changing. So you can imagine how out of place I might have looked in that barren area, digging out sand from beneath the tires, in my short dress, coat, and ballet shoes, pushing and shoving rocks, along with others, and trying desperately not to make a hole in my favorite pair of pantyhose or chip off my fiery red nail varnish.

Four people, and it took us around 20 minutes to get unstuck, the last five of which, we were pushing the feisty vehicle like there was no tomorrow. Then again, the remote area near the suburbs of Cairo is infamous for thieves and pillagers, and we didn’t want to catch their attention so close to the road — where only a dull-looking tractor passed in the time it took us to release the car.

But the God who lived in the silence of deserts was generous, and we merged our wills with His, and after a thrust of force, the car moved past this spot reeling into the desert, its engine roaring triumphantly. Cheers and high-fives followed — the stress we all seemed to mask so well while we wondered minutes earlier “What if we can’t get out of this?” was released from bondage, and we were laughing with relief again.

Two kilometers in, we chose a nice spot to set camp — the flatest ground we could find– since sitting near a small hill or rocky pile meant insects and creeping lizards could pop out. One of our friends kept insisting that the area had ‘vipers’ — not a good thought when you’re already there. We soon brushed off the image of ‘vipers’ from our heads, instead diverting our attention to making a bonfire. We used wood from the area. We started brewing aromatic tea with “marmariya” from Sinai — its smell bringing sweet peace to our small gathering. The stars twinkled above, and the silence was … beautiful.

Nearing dawn, a fog started to creep in. So did the cold. I pulled a blanket tightly around me and was soon lost in thought.

A fog tip-toeing from all directions was a different sight in the desert — the white clouds created a surreal dreamy atmosphere as it hugged us and concealed everything else from view. At this point, we were all huddling in a small circle around a dying fire. The friend –the traveller– was struggling to keep the burning timber alight. He had once told me he liked looking at the light of fire. And it looked like, as he turned the wood, blew at the flames, and just watched it grow, that this was his form of meditation.

Bouts of silence punctuated the quiet chatter, and the stillness was a field of energy in its own right.

The desert, and its elements, teach you to love your mind, I thought. But you have to hate it first. You have to endure its venom, before you learn to forgive it. Unlike the heart, it’s the only piece of us that feels like someone else’s — like a different person. Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote that, “one must have ruined oneself for generations keeping a crumbling chateau in repair before one learns to love it.” My mind is this crumbling chateau, and in those hours, when I’m blessed with a friendly encounter with stillness, is when the repair takes place. I tell my thoughts I forgive them, and I love my ghosts, like Saint-Ex, “with the only love that matters.”

At some point, looking at the fog (or failing to look through it) as we sat in its stomach, I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, God was in the fog after all. Or maybe like religions profess, he’s everywhere — and the fog is his hand, reaching out.

Listening to: Radio in the a.m.
Useful tip: this trip can be made in Wadi Degla, however the gate closes at 5:00 pm there
Wants from the Universe: more travel, more stillness, more inspiration, Love and Light, as always. Friends.

Advertisements
Buffers, Les élus

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

Buffers, Les élus

In 140 characters or less

This train of thoughts formed a series of tweets, that I felt I’d like to preserve here, for how special the feelings this quiet and small experience evoked in me:

So I tried to tweet from the plane yesterday, but for some reason the tweets weren’t sent in SMSes through mobile
But our plane stood in the airport for an hour, while we’re on board, as it was being fixed. And they kept turning the engine on and off…
It was scary cos I thought there must be a reason why my flight was cancelled, [why] I rebooked in BMI, [that the] strike [was] called off, [for me to] return to BA [in the end] …
And my conclusion was, this plane is gonna crash (probably during take-off) and that I was meant to be on it, that was my death …
Quite dramatic, I know, but in some instances your mind sells you all kind of ideas, and depending on your belief system, you buy or not…
But nothing bad happened, and since there were only 18 people on the whole plane (after flight was reinstated), it was v. comfortable…
And I have to say I prefer night flights to morning ones. There’s something serene about flying high, and being embraced in darkness …
I enjoyed being alone for a first in a long time, away from all, stranded between earth & sky. I didn’t even feel like thinking …
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. I’m not repulsed by others, I enjoyed their presence while enjoying being alone, simultaneously
At a certain point I switched off the main screen, and enjoyed the silence. I could see stars & the moon from my window cos plane was dark …
And I remember thinking that I haven’t seen the moon and stars above the clouds before. They must have been hidden to those on Earth …
and this realization (that they’re there even if we don’t see them) was comforting. I felt like a child again …
… My mind was clear for a while, which felt surreal and I wanted the flight to last longer and longer. I didn’t want to go back to Earth. I felt I belonged there …
The only other place that I felt might be a sanctuary (as I read Robert Twigger’s Lost Oasis) was the desert … and suddenly I didn’t feel like I missed London or wanted to escape back to it, but I looked forward to being lost in new places …
… to explore, to be with myself, to sit alone, to learn to look at the sky or at people and see, and I mean really see
Inspired by Rob, I made the decision to turn this into an adventure (or a dream to keep me going) & plan for a big break from my small world.
… Perhaps I’m meant to find this lost oasis, which many have failed to. I’m sure they all thought they’re the “chosen ones” …
… but I’m also sure, that despite not finding it, they found something else, perhaps just as enigmatic, & mysterious & precious.