Les élus

Cheap, plastic, tacky constants

When I was in Shaolin China, in a temple town in Henan province, I always felt it was like a dream simply because everything was different. There was no one I knew, my decision to go there was sporadic so I went with little research, there was nothing that I related to at first or recognized. You name it: language, culture, how people looked and dressed, even going to town for a visit to the supermarket was an exercise in cultural shock.

I was too afraid at the beginning. I travelled alone, no guides, and no Chinese language skills. No one spoke English in this part of China, it was very far from the ‘civilized world’ as we know it. For the first few days, I couldn’t stomach the food and I lived on steamed rice and water. I didn’t understand when people spoke about me around me, or when they spoke to me. I felt threatened if I walked a bit too far from my school, fearing I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. Even having a phone was useless; because there was no one I could call in China in an emergency. My first Kung Fu Shifu spoke little English, and I had to use sign language a lot and gesticulate dramatically to get small things across. Even the silence at night on Kung Fu camp used to scare me. On my first day in the Kung Fu school, I woke up thinking it’s a mistake, after I went to bed crying the night before and shaking under the covers. What the hell did I do? I thought. How did I ever think this was a good idea. “I’ll book my flight back to Egypt next week,” I said to myself, “or as early as I can. Until then, I’ll hide in my room.”

Then the change happened, I fell in love with the place, started liking Kung Fu training, got used to every single aspect of the strangeness and moved from scared alien to lover. To the point where the phrase “Made in China,” now printed on almost every single merchandise in the world thanks to a tigerish economy, became an endearing thing, and a bag of memories.

However, the feeling that Egypt is so far away, almost like a fantasy land, never went away. I was in Middle Earth. And Egypt is some mad version of a post-apocalyptic futuristic movie. If not for discovering VPN three months into my stay and getting re-connected to familiar “avatars” and “status updates” on Facebook and Twitter, I would’ve been mentally stranded in this bubble or would’ve sworn Egypt and its worries existed only in my imagination, and that things like Starbucks, fancy restaurants, “City Stars,” and even McDonalds are mere hallucinations; the Matrix that I can’t see for what it used to be anymore.

Surviving without familiars can confuse you at first. It reminds me with this fictional character in Lost, the Sci-fi TV series, I think he was a Scott, who needed some sort of a “constant” as he traveled back and forth between time. I remember his lover was called Penny, and she was his constant.

Now, when I came back to Egypt, I felt the opposite of that. It was time for the reverse shock. Mind you, I spent over a year in Europe, and despite finding some difficulty adapting at first when I moved back to Cairo, it’s nothing, nothing compared to a change from a secluded martial arts boarding school in the Asian mountains to a big bustling city in the Middle East.

I came back to the same people, close loved ones too, family, friends, albeit people who haven’t experienced or have seen what I’ve seen. I felt like I was in a coma for 9 months, or to me, they were. Like going to sleep, then waking up a year later. Things have changed; There’s a new president, new graffiti on the walls, some big and small changes, and some things that didn’t change at all. They got back a girl, who looks the same, but not so much; a subtle difference is there and they can’t quite figure it out.

I was quiet at first. I mean, what should I say? And it seemed to me, they didn’t know where to start either.

Have you seen what I have seen? … No, you can’t imagine. Have I seen what you have seen? No. I can’t imagine too.

But I think, at least in my case, they can see some signs. My disenchantment, staying in my room for hours on end, keeping quiet, or just being suddenly explosive and angry, sleep disturbances because no matter how much Abbas El Akkad is quiet, it’s not quiet enough, not remotely. Going out becomes a burden, and I almost developed a phobia to driving in Egypt traffic.

And now ever since I got back, my closest companion is a water bottle. In China, where I was, everyone had a plastic water bottle, young or old, even Kung Fu masters and policemen carried them. The bottles were filled with strange looking herbal teas, carrying some flowers or seeds, or just plain hot water to sip on. It’s second nature there. Especially with water.

And I picked the habit.

Now, my water bottle has become my constant.

No, not my pictures and videos from there, not my Kung Fu uniforms, or my Shaolin weapons or Buddhist accessories (because these seem like things bought from a souvenir shop, and my weapons look like heavily-used movie props. In Egypt, they look so out of place, drowned in clutter. I look at them, and I almost can’t believe I know how to use them. Sometimes I see in them the same alienation I feel in my heart).

But my water bottle is different; it’s a simple, small reminder that I was part of a different culture, at least for a while. No one around me sips on hot water; some make fun of me. But that makes it even more precious, because it’s a part of the China experience that they can see, touch, poke fun at me for. The water bottle is cheap, it’s not something I can order on ebay or ship from a Kung Fu shop abroad, or want to. I couldn’t have got it unless I was there.

It’s kitsch, it’s used, it’s scratched from multiple falls to the floor, it’s too normal to be a fantasy and I fill it with steaming hot water and sip on it like my friends the Chinese do.

My plastic water bottle –which sells for 15 yuan a pop– with the plastic pink top and the faded Chinglish writing is the proof I was there, that China didn’t happen in my head while I was sleeping.

I was there because my plastic water bottle is here.

Just knowing this gives me peace.

Image
My plastic security blanket; I owe it a bit of my sanity
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Travel Writing

The Shaolin Letters: Genesis

If you’ve missed reading about my little adventure leaving it all behind and pilgriming all the way from Egypt to the Shaolin Temple in the north of mainland China to learn Kung Fu, Qi Gong meditation and zen Buddhism, here’s a recap:

That Awkward Moment in Kung Fu camp 

Shaolin Temple Kung Fu School

Snapshots

Kung Fu Cuteness

Breaking Through

Xiao Hong Quan – first form

They Don’t Sell Deodorants in Dengfeng

Post-It: Time On My Hands

World Knowledge in Dengfeng

Bridges Make Me Smile

It’s All Relative

Post-It: Gunfire and Whips

A Glimpse Into My Training

Post-It: Kung Fu Graduates

Buddhology

Shaolin Humor

From the Center of Heaven and Earth (aka Shaolin China)

Dress Rehearsal

Mànhuà-inspired Silliness

Post-It Shaolin Tip

A Documentary on Shaolin Wushu and Zen Buddhism

Snakes, Maspero and Shaolin Dreams

Post-It: Rain

Post-It: Qi Gong

These were all posted less than two weeks into my journey, and I have been here 10 weeks and very prolific. Take a look at the entire archive of my Shaolin China posts if you’d like to jump forward to a date and see my May and June posts, or to get the whole batch of letters I’ve written to the world from ‘the Center of Heaven and Earth’: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com/archive

Hope you enjoy reading them, please do send me your feedback, here or via email at pakinamamer at yahoo dot com.

Love and light x

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.

Buffers, Les élus, Travel Writing

I turn my hourglass …

… and lose myself in thought about the journeys we make.

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love –a book which I was fiercely cynical of until I started leafing through and relating to the author Elizabeth Gilbert– I wondered about my own personal journey.

During a ride back from a festival in Wadi El Gemal, down south, I began a brief conversation (more like a monologue where I was reciting the lines) with a travel companion, one which later continued on in my head, about the nature of travel, and the kind of people it attracts. I came later to the loose conclusion that the people who travel cannot be classified, simply because everyone does — in one way or another. Gilbert traveled to forget a man, to connect with God, to eat and to find love. Others do it to escape war, death or poverty. Some do it to bring those three on others.

We travel, therefore we are.

I thought of my own journeys in the now aged 2010. The Cairo-to-Shalateen trip was about the conflict near the borders with Sudan, the mystery of tribes I have not met and the companionship on that trip — I was curious, not about destination per se, but the prospect of discovering myself in the process of talking to people and seeing a place that, as me and my co-writer have put it, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps, on some level, I related to Shalateen’s demise and innocence. On another I related to the journey — to the idea of crossing points on a map but not stopping on each for too long; the “not belonging” feel of a roadtrip was part of its magic. All the better, I didn’t feel the need to belong anywhere.

On my return to this spot earlier this month where the tribes of Beja (now more familiar to me) lived, I confess, part of it was about tasting again that bitter sweet Jabana coffee made with ginger, seated on the ground, in wadis between the mountains. It was also an exercise in familiarity, or rather the flaunting of it. The pride of feeling or saying that “yes, yes, I’ve been here before. I know the laws, and the dances, and the coffee — I even have my own Jabana set.”

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

Recently, a friend talked about a “treasure hunt” he had done with the Bedouins using a metal detector in the Sinai desert. The prospect immediately fired me up, and suddenly Sinai was not just a place to observe the mountains as they hug the sea, but a place perhaps to explore and search for hidden things. If he keeps his promise and takes me with him to hunt for shiny metals, it won’t be for destination –like always– but the very, very small and rare possibility of finding something precious beneath the sands. And it’s more about the process of finding, the hunt if you will, than the object sought.

Same with the desire to explore the Gilf, that stretch of remote land elevated over a plateau whose name means “The Great Barrier” and who’s been enchanting travelers like Lazlo Almasy and Mohammed Hassanein with tales of lost armies and a dried oasis hidden from our eyes. For me, it’s about the caves that have yet to be discovered, not the ones that already are. It’s also about the silence — another reason I go to places. I search for it in the hope that the silence without will create a silence within, that the gibbering voices in my head will finally decide to let go and move out.

Am I the kind of traveler who wants to stumble into places, get to know the culture and people, eat local food and take pictures of temples and revered walls? No. At least not at this stage.

A new travel idea I’m developing — a rather personal and private one which, surprisingly, I’m willing to share — is to go to Munich, where my father lived for six years as a young man. There, he knew a woman, who I believe was his first love (a very unfounded conclusion reached after listening to accounts and snippets of stories from aunts and uncles who recite them like family lore and profess knowledge that I think is beyond them, but nevertheless find entertaining).

My father (on the right, black shirt) in 70's Munich

I heard of letters (whose fate is unknown), and the investigator inside of me wants to find those letters, track down the woman in Munich and meet her — it’s a small journey inside the mind of my own father, as it is inside the city which shaped a lot of his beliefs and world-views. Needless to say, my father doesn’t get personal with me, and he would probably go berserk if he knew I’d want to go on such a privacy-inflitrating personal assignment (especially that I ritualistically lecture my parents on respect for privacy and the need for space even within a small, tight family).

It’s such an offensive on privacy, I know, to sift through someone else’s decades-old secrets.

But my nose-poking and shameless prodding is justified by one thing; I feel that my father’s history is also a part of mine. In a way, it’s part of my heritage. And yes, that includes his secrets. Even the ones that he doesn’t care about anymore. And perhaps his own father’s secrets, if I knew of a way where I could ever come to those.

It’s a flimsy argument, very shaky. And I might not even find those letters with the 35-plus-year-old-address of a woman, who might have moved out of the country, changed her name or gender, or died. It also carries the prospect of not hearing anything from anyone, having a door slammed violently in my face or ending up meeting an over-weight, foul-mouthed German who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t recognize my father’s name. The city itself has been reshaped over the years — perhaps it gained weight too, or lost it, in a manner of speaking. The Munich that my father loved is no more, and that “thing”, that needle in a haystack, which has made up a part of his inner him, may be lost even on a passion-filled, genuinely enthused, ever-optimistic seeker like myself.

My father as a young man, with his camera. He wrote letters too.

But this remains a small travel fantasy, that has nothing to do with “discovering a new place” or “flying by the seat of my pants.” Perhaps the fact that I blow its cover here, and talk about something personal to me and my father, has more to do with wanting something about my father to be exposed to the world — something that may stay on after the two of us are gone, and would keep us both alive. Perhaps it’s for my future kids, or his grandchildren. Here is something about your grand-dad, his story. The storyteller in me wanted something about him to be out there, something personal, a testimony to his presence.

“Here’s a man who loved and lived” kind of thing. “And this man is my father.”

In Wadi El Gemal, I listened to this astronomy session beneath the stars (one which helped me know where the direction of Mecca is at night for the following two days, and which works well when you want to boast about basic knowledge of star alignment to strangers). I looked up at the stars, and I wondered whether I travel because I can’t commit. My temperament is ever changing — this has been my constant– and so are my ideas. I wonder if the idea of “home” is one of them. I wonder if curiosity about new places, is actually a search for something else entirely, perhaps for a certain brand of commitment.

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

But I don’t know yet what makes them so.

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

Some time has passed since I began my musings. I turn the hourglass.

Listening to: Girl, the Beatles
Favorite bit: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story … All about the girl who came to stay? … She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Mood: Happy and hopeful, perhaps without reason.
Wants from the Universe: Travel with purpose, with love.

Les élus, Travel Writing

Why do we travel – The complete series

The need to travel is mysterious

With the help of a friend, I have suggested and conceptualized a travel series for Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English portal, where I’m currently travel editor, that explores the question of why people travel. Inspired by two similar articles in Salon.com and The Observer, the series was launched and every week a new writer spoke of what made them leave the familiar or “home” in search of new land, new experiences and new faces. Why do we turn our back to what we know and seek novelty? For adventure? Because we’re lonely? Because we can? I put together here links for the complete series where writers and travelers meditate on this question and attempt to reveal the mystery that often shrouds the practice of travel.

Each recounts their personal experiences and their own philosophy of travel:

We have also accepted two contributions from readers:

On Twitter: @pakinamamer tweets for @ME_Traveller

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!

Les élus, Travel Writing

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.

Buffers, Les élus, Travel Writing

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.

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

Books That Inspire, Les élus, Travel Writing

From Robert Twigger’s Lost Oasis

I typed up here the bits that touched or inspired me when I read them. I have only just started the book, so I suspect I’ll be updating this post as I read more.

“The desert was about the void, the zero point, shrinking yourself and your concerns in the immensity and emptiness of it all. The desert was about a definite psychological need for vastness in the face of human confusion, brain fatigue. Mind-bothered Western man can take drugs, alter his lifestyle, turn off the television, pierce his body or run a marathon, it all amounts to just so much therapy to keep him loping along the same track towards the inevitable finishing post. I saw the desert as a huge right turn, a different path, another way out of what everyone was into, the money, goods and attention conflicts of the current century. The desert cured the malaise, not just the symptoms. Somehow the vastness of the desert signalled the infinite present, nowness, headspace, instant immortality.”

“When the wind is low the desert is especially quiet. Noise, especially when you live somewhere constantly noisy like Cairo (it’s a gripe of filmmakers that Cairo is bad for filming because of the constant hum, whatever time of early morning you try to film you can never be rid of that deep city resonance, sixteen million people, the biggest city in Africa, just humming, humans making a noise like a giant hive; it was the reason I heard the English Patient wasn’t filmed in Egypt, the Cairo hum, always there, ruining any direct sound recording) you get so used to noise that when it’s not there you feel your body starting to expand, as if gravity is weaker, as if the lack of noise is causing your body parts, no, your very cells, to fly apart. It’s almost unbearable, just for a moment, before you get a grip and relabel it ‘relaxing’ or ‘absence of tension’, but the first few minutes when it hits you it’s terrifying, you begin to doubt that you’ll hold together. If feels as if without noise we will perish and expand, with the pressure off we’ll be like astronauts in punctured suits.”

“Now I was safe I could reflect on the intense burst of loneliness I’d felt, like the distilled essence of loneliness … Did I want to continue with this game? People who hate the desert – and there are plenty – must intuit this feeling before even visiting the place and, knowing it, leave well alone. But I was glad. It meant the desert, however man tamed it with cars and cool-boxes and GPS machines, still had teeth, was still a wild place where man went at his peril, had to have his wits about him. Man’s instinct is to diminish the desert, reduce its dangers, build a town at the oasis and connect it by phone, rail, air and truck to the next oasis. I wanted to reduce its dangers too, but only so far. In the past you’d be limited by what was available — camels and leaky water skins. Desert dwellers, the tebu, Bedouin and Tuareg, had all learnt to live with this fear. You would be judged irresponsible, by modern standards, if you wanted to recreate that danger, that balance of fear and possibility.”

The book itself can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Oasis-Adventures-Egyptian-Desert/dp/0753824051/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274553100&sr=8-1

And this is Twigger’s Explorer’s School: http://www.theexplorerschool.com/

Les élus, Travel Writing

Near Southern Borders

The Halayeb triangle, Shalateen and Elba soon turned into a dream destination for me and my travel partner Amr El Beleidy for the sole reason that they seemed to be untouched spots on Egypt’s map.

Because of border disputes with Sudan, the area was closed off to many “intruders” and was off-limit to foreigners who had no business being there. Perhaps only environment-related research, and a combination of nepotism and haggling can get you near that strip of land. We were lucky to be allowed into Shalateen and into the mountains to its West – both full of stories, difficulties and a different kind of magic. Badriya, the feisty 4X4 Land Rover discovery we both love, happily took us there. The 1000-km drive south was well worth it — despite losing our way, our car lights failing us in dark winding roads and in spite of getting behind on schedule a few times. And we tweeted, using Badriya’s Twitter account, about all that and more.

But in retrospect, it was all so much fun. We tried to out-smart a high-ranking army official to our failure and embarrassment, we made friends with local police officers, two of them over-concerned with “marriage and dating”, we learned about making henna and dancing with swords. We attended a tribal wedding, walked through Roman temples and past ancient water wells tucked away in the mountains of Wadi el-Gemal, home to the largest population of gazelles in Egypt, and we hunted –with our cameras– a few of those.

The daily camel market was no less remarkable, with the massive camel traffic coming all the way from southern Sudan on foot and further north into Egypt on trucks.

And perhaps the most worthwhile part of the trip was speaking with the locals, whose lives are caught in the middle of a border dispute between Egypt and Sudan.

Our trip was worth documenting, in our humble opinion, and we decided it was even worth a travel series. You can read our stories on Al-Masry Al-Youm English website. You need only to click on the Shalateen and Back Again banner to access the latest instalment of the southern adventure.

These are the stories published so far:

  • A hunt for adventure, fun and facts in the southern mountains: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/26118 (A short introduction to the series)
  • Married to Tradition: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/26323 (the product of an exciting conversations with young locals on issues of the heart; love, dating and marriage)
  • Shalateen: Growing up between a rock and a hard placehttp://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/36282 (a meditation on the past, present and future of this unblemished town)
  • The Long Drive Down: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/37588 (The roadtrip begins here, how we went from picking a spot on the map  to actually making the 1200-kilometers drive to the deep south happen)
  • The Hunt for Truths in a Far-off Town: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/39212 (We finally arrive at Shalateen. Read about how we tried to play “good cop, bad cop” with the military and how it backfired, how our first (forced) friendships were with undercover policeman and security officials. We share our first impressions and show how the presence of two strangers disturbed the peace in the small town)
  • Swords, Shields and A Whip: A Beja Wedding Night: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/40980 (This is where we recount our search for gold, and our memories of a very special Bedouin wedding in the mountains)
  • Saying Farewell to the South: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/42541 (We explore ancient Roman lodgings and temples, we hunt deer with our cameras, sleep under the stars only to wake up to find ourselves surrounded by border guards)

Companion pieces
Skills learned from Bedouin men and women:

In Pictures:

Video:

  • Wedding Dance of the Beja Tribe: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/40195 In the heart of the mountains south of Egypt, we attended a “Beja” tribe wedding. Here we record one of the Bedouin ceremonial dances we witnessed and share our impressions.

We were also inspired to write blogs posts, jotting down our own impressions of the area, its people and the common issues we both face:

Follow the travellers on Twitter:

Amr – @beleidy

Pakinam – @pakinamamer

Badriya – @Badriya4X4

Les élus, Travel Writing

Reflections on a Southern Marriage

By Amr El Beleidy
‘Along The Watchtower’ Guest Writer

People tend to think that their way of life is the best way to live, until they see a different way that impresses them. And sometimes we fall into the trap of being so self centered and closed minded that our baseline for what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad is whether it’s the way we do it or not. If it’s different it’s wrong. And people who fall into this trap never learn, because they are never open to anything new.

When we (I and Pakinam Amer, owner of this blog, follow her on twitter @pakinamamer) travelled to Shalateen on a travel writing assignment, we attended a wedding 180Km away from the town and into the mountains by pure chance. Naturally we started flooding our guide with questions about traditions and how things get done there. We were later invited by a group of young men to have some coffee with them on the beach, and the same topic came up again. The funny thing is that the topic of marriage kept coming up with everyone we met, including the plain-clothed policeman who stopped us in the market.

Then naturally me and Pakinam started discussing our findings. I think we already have different views on a lot of issues back here in Cairo (although to be fair, we do agree on a lot as well), which we are meant to understand best. But these differences and the differences in perception of what the locals where trying to say caused us to see things in differnet ways as well.

A lot of people will be tempted to think about which style of marriage is better, the ‘Open-minded’ Cairo style or the traditional tribal customs ‘Shalateen’ style. But define better. What makes a successful marriage? Is it the number of babies, I think most people would agree that the world has moved past this point. So is it happiness? Well, how do you measure that? And so the engineer in me thinks, that failing to define a concrete measurable value (or set of values) that indicate the quality of marriage, the question of which style is better will never be answered.

But there are advantages and disadvantages to all systems, and there are ‘myths’ that I would like to dispel about the Shalateen style of marriage. Naturally I will be speaking here from a man’s point of view.

1. It’s easier to find a partner

It definitely is. You have a limited choice of women, who a lot of them are very good looking, and so picking one does not take ages. If she refuses, then just pick another one. And if you don’t want to pick one, just talk about marriage in front of your parents and they will pick one for you, without you even asking.

2. Money is not an issue

As long as you are a good man, you pray and you fast, they don’t care what your financial situation is. Then the dowry depends on what you can afford, normally between 1000 & 3000 LE. When we wanted to tell them about the dowry’s in Cairo, we asked, how much is the most expensive dowry you can imagine, the answer was 5000 LE! And when told some moderate numbers, one of them exclaimed “Are you buying a car or getting married?” showing that for them buying a car is seen as the more expensive financial burden of the two things.

And buying the house is not a problem, get a piece of cloth, a number of sticks and you have your new tent. Are you getting richer, buy a shack down in the town and she will happily follow. No need for electricity, furniture and all that stuff. Maybe just a carpet not to sit on the sand.

3. The lack of strict commitments

It is definitely easier to commit to something knowing that you can get out of it. If you have a safety net in case you are wrong, then you will be more willing to take risks, and those who take risks sometimes achieve great things.

In Cairo, you have to pick the ‘right’ person, who ideally you will make a one time investment with, emotional investment, financial investment, time and health investment, and closing the door of marrying others. Divorce is a big deal as well, and naturally it should be, given the massive investment.

And thus, in Cairo we take forever to chose, but there, where class, age and looks don’t matter (they all follow the same religion, so that doesn’t matter as well), finding someone is far easier. When you may marry once more (without divorcing your current wife if you are a man), and divorce if either party is not happy without making anyone ‘used goods’ or having lower status then the decision to marry becomes easier. And so things move, people get married, divorced and married again. And if you are happy and satisfied with your marriage, even if everything says it should go wrong according to the ‘Cairo’ style then you just stay married and enjoy life together.

Cairo’s society putting strict rules on what will and what will not succeed is a self-fulfilling prophecy that many times have ruined what could have been happy lives.

The myth that women are oppressed:

If you ask me it seems like the men have a tough time there. People think the women are oppressed because they are forced into marriage, are not the first wife (while he is still marrying others), not allowed to go out of the house, etc..

The fact of the matter is they are not complaining.

Women in the mountains get very good treatment. One of the lads by the beach asked us a question, “Is it true what I heard that sometimes men in Cairo, insult and even hit their wives?” Another one answered with extreme conviction before I could even speak “No, no. There is no way it can reach hitting the women” and this answer came with a cringe of the face, this cringe you have when you think of something so disgusting.

And women in Cairo do get insulted, and do get beaten. Sure not all of them (that would be a bit crazy) but it happens, and it probably happens more than you think, because people will not go around saying their stories of hitting/being hit. So who is really oppressed?

The men there where complaining that the women were too shy, that it was difficult to talk to them, that if you were not from the close family circles they would never talk to you. The women are the ones who want it this way it seems.

At the wedding, the women did not want to get photographed, until the men told them off, for being rude to the guests who came all the way to attend the wedding.

It’s the women who want to stay in hiding, and not have foreign eyes look at them, and it’s a choice that we should respect and not demean in any way.

Women might be forced into marriage, but not to a particular man, and the men get forced too. Young people everywhere know of the pressures that parents put on them to partner up. It’s the same thing there, the whole you have to get married pressure. It just starts at a different age.

Many wives to one husband, no one is complaining. Just because women in some parts of the world do not like to share, doesn’t mean they all don’t. Given the circumstances there and the way of life, the women seemed at least not unhappy to share. It’s a different concept, and that’s all it is. Not oppression, not demeaning, just different.

Reminds me a bit of the Native Americans, how white Europeans could not understand how they did not have the concept of private property. How can you share your land with everyone else? Just a different way of living, if you don’t like it, don’t live there.

So if there is a lesson to learn from the tribal marriage traditions, it’s that putting too many restrictions on ourselves as a society ultimately makes our lives more difficult. The next time you hear of a partner combination you don’t like, stop, and let your prejudices go. You will make life easier for others, and for yourself as well.

——————-

Related Links:

Married to Tradition: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/married-tradition-shalateen

A Hunt for Adventure, Fun, and Facts in the Southern Mountains: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/hunt-adventure-fun-and-facts-southern-mountains

Pakinam’s take on marriage and relations in Shalateen and Cairo: https://pakinamamer.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult/

Related Twitter Accounts:

@beleidy: Traveller and writer, author of this blog post

@pakinamamer: Traveller and writer, owner of this blog

@Badriya4X4: The Landy who tweeted about the 1200-km deep south

@touringa: a free travel communities and tour hosting website that connects locals, travellers and adventurers. “Travel with the Tribe”

Les élus, Travel Writing

Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult

Relationships, that is.

The title of the blogpost is a quote from In the Loop, a Brit-American political comedy about the lead up to the Iraq war. It’s uttered by a hapless British minister lost at finding a way to remain neutral in the face of belligerent US politicians and military men divided over preventing or launching a war. The minister’s aide tells him that sitting on the fence is going to be “easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy” to which he responds, stumbling for words, that “No, it’s going to be difficult, difficult, lemon difficult” — which I find to be one of the most absurd and brilliant comedic lines I’ve heard in movies.

It’s also true of relationships. They’re DDLD — whether in Cairo, by the sea, in the mountains, at one end of Egypt or another.

A conversation that I and a travel partner (@beleidy on Twitter) had with young Bedouins during an assignment last month in Shalateen made me meditate on this more. After a stroll on the beach and a chit-chat with four young residents, we found ourselves giving “dating” advise to inquisitive strangers and sharing our insights into the differences between marriage in Cairo and Shalateen, almost 1000 km south and so practically at the other end of the country. It was an interesting conversation, which (at least for me) was steeped in innocence, simplicity, curiosity but also carried signs of confusion and a sense of entrapment. I may very well be projecting my own feelings of how complicated I find the workings of relationships between the opposite sexes in this city ‘that conquers’ – Al-Qahera- to be. But this is exactly the vibe I received.

The conversation inspired a whole article, which we decided should be the teaser piece for our travel package and which can be found here:http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/married-tradition-shalateen(“Married to Tradition”, published by Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition). And it often made me laugh when I remember it, and occasionally think, well think seriously I mean.

I’m not sure about my colleague, but I’m such a loser at relationships myself, I don’t know how they start or end, I don’t know anything about how to make them work and like in journalism, I’m often an observer not an actor. Because of this, I waver between many mixed feelings. I feel this aloneness, and I forget it. I let go then I worry. It gives me space, it suffocates me. It frustrates me sometimes. I’m not bothered by it at other times.  But it always makes me think, when I see others forging what seems to be eternal ties with loved ones, “What am I doing wrong?”

And so on that beach of Shalateen, when these young men seemed trapped in their own traditions of marrying cousins and marrying inside the tribe, I thought it was amusing that they were seeking answers from us.

We kept prodding ourselves. What if you decide to marry from Cairo? What if you like a girl from outside the tribe? What if this? What if that? And they indulged us as much as we did them.

And following a long conversation, there was a pause.

Despite how simple and cheap it was to get married, they were held back by ancient costumes — having your life partner chosen by parents and pre-decided for you.

But we are, it seems, held back by even greater forces, which are rooted in the idea of picking and choosing — finding the right girl or guy amid a myriad of choices that are not really choices when you think of them (everyone is “too” something for the other, too educated, too ignorant, too rich, too poor, too old, too young, too aggressive, too laid-back, too fat, too thin, too short, etc, etc). And of course by greater complications, which include family status, money or the lack thereof.

As I said, there was a pause. They weren’t impressed by the complexities that dating, relationships, “love” entitle for Cairiens despite all the apparent “freedom” we have. We, or at least I wasn’t happy with the sense of helplessness they seemed to have in choosing who to spend the rest of their lives with. They seemed to compensate for that by having the ability to marry more than one. It’s very easy (and in upcoming instalments of the Shalateen travel package, we will write elaborately on marriage and divorce in the tribe. The stories come out every Wednesday).

But it didn’t seem that our part of the deal had that appeal. Divorce and re-marriage is a big deal here, and for girls it’s still a small catastrophe to be divorced “or ditched” by the man across classes. It’s still a big deal if you choose out of the “mainstream”, like choosing someone of a noticeably different social background, from outside of the capital or someone who is several years younger, something that writer and relationship advisor Marwa Rakha writes about here: http://www.marwarakha.com/index.php?categoryid=25&p2_articleid=1021

Marwa, like many among us, screams at the small world we all float within, complaining of double-standards, of extreme lack of respect for privacy, of gossip and back-stabbing, and most of all of those who limit your choices by asking you to conform to a standard. As if you choose, borrowing from Neil Gaiman’s words, who “the stupid person” who stumbles into your stupid life and steals your heart will be.

In short, in the north, it seems a much more complicated affair than in the south, despite what it seems. We are similarly trapped, actually we’re in a worse situation.

At the end of our conversation on the beach, it seems that the Shalateen boys had secretly decided that relationship and marriage traditions in Cairo, the glittering capital reeking of  signs of ‘civilization’ and full of ‘free-spirited’ men and women, wonders, money, opportunity and choice, simply SUCK. And that perhaps in the mountains, it’s pre-ordained, but possible, as easy to get out of as it is to get into, simple, and unspoiled by material demands and needless pretences. And that perhaps we should chill a bit and enjoy what life has to offer instead of warping every good thing that comes our way.

Despite our levels of education, and if you’re so inclined, sophistication, we’re miserably looking for the other-half while being held down by our own lore and traditions, by our insecurities, doubts, loss of innocence, lack of faith and mistrust and while sifting through many distracting choices (so many that we don’t know what we want anymore).

We’re tired of convention too, but like the Shalateen guys, we’re too afraid to break ranks with the overwhelming mainstream. That’s why someone like Marwa Rakha who is past her 30, according to our lore, can’t fall in love with a man nine years her junior, and that’s why the AUC boy, according to golden rules, cannot marry a girl from Al-Azhar University, and that’s why the overweight geek can’t get the blond everyone wants, and that’s why this 29-year-old girl (who just realized that after working for a few years and completing her masters degree she wants to fall in love) should settle for an arranged marriage, “or we’ll all miss the train,” as the Egyptian saying goes.

That’s why it’s difficult, like lemons.

But Focket!

(like our lifestyle editor would say)

Screw those Egyptian-made rules. I’m not playing this game any more.

I want out!

—–

Related Links:

Hunt for Adventure, Fun and Facts in the southern mountains: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/hunt-adventure-fun-and-facts-southern-mountains

Married to Tradition: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/married-tradition-shalateen

Amr El Beleidy blogs about marriage, dating and relationships in Shalateen and Cairo:  https://pakinamamer.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/guest-post-reflections-on-a-southern-marriage/

Related Twitter accounts:

@pakinamamer: Traveller and writer, and owner of this blog.

@beleidy: Traveller and writer.

@Badriya4X4: a Landy who tweeted about the 1200-km journey deep south.