This day one year ago I was whining and complaining once again over the detailed drapery I was supposed to draw tied in the background to a bottle and a jar.
“Sharpen your pencil! I keep asking you to sharpen your pencil.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did. You saw me.”
“That’s not sharpening your pencil. Let me show you how.”
And he took my pencil and knife and sharpened it to a needlepoint, then he made me get off the chair and began to set an outline for the shadows and the curves that were evident in the drapery. He pointed to details I could barely notice. Thus began my first lesson in the most important prerequisite for art: patience. There was no chance for a good drawing with a real life looking outcome except with precision, and precision comes with patience.
He then walked away from my easel and left me to what was my third or fourth attempt as I silently cussed and cursed until it was time for me to leave. I was more or less satisfied with the result. The guy was right, I never sharpened my pencils. Before I left I decided to show him what I managed to accomplish and looked for him in the studio. I could overhear him talking to someone from his private room so I decided he was too busy. No big deal, I thought, I’ll see him again in two days and then I can show it to him.
Only he never got to see it again, and I never got to hear his voice again. A few hours later after I walked out of my last class with him, Saleh, that assertive, fiery, funny artist who walked into my life and shook it vigorously died of a heart attack at the age of 37. That bolt of lightening that used to show up suddenly behind my shoulder whenever my lines began to shake and dwindle out of frustration, was snuffed out as easily as a candle.
Before I met Saleh I had a liking for art, but as much as I used to enjoy drawing as a child my attempts never went too far beyond what they were; an eight year-old’s drawings. In the last few years, however, my liking turned into a passion, and I was always the type that needed to get physically busy, I needed to be able to express myself with something that was other than words, because sometimes emotions can run so sore it’s hard to find the right words to express them, or sometimes silence can be your best cry. Drawing can deliver emotions of love, anger, and serenity with the strokes of a pencil, and that was what I hoped to achieve but never dared to express for lack of confidence. So when I first walked into Saleh’s studio and looked around at the paintings and drawings I stood in awe as I stared at a detailed pencil drawing he told me was at entry level. “Could I possibly draw like that just by the end of the course? I can’t imagine,” I said with my eyes popping out with wonder. “Yes you could,” he replied, “and you will. You’ll see.” He said it with so much confidence that I felt a little puzzled and, to be honest, motivated.
Saleh was actually glad that I had no proper background except for my childhood drawings. Students of this kind are so much easier to teach, he said. It’s always easier for a beginner to learn new techniques than it is for an established artist to change to new ones. Art is always very subjective and affected by the person who delivers it to you, but a good messenger would take you bit by bit, hand in hand, until you’re strong enough to stand on your own and go on alone, developing your own approach and technique. That’s the kind of messenger Saleh was.
There’s not a day that goes by whenever I think of my drawing that I don’t see Saleh and remember the sound of his oud as he played for us in the background while we struggled with the shadow outlines–that incredible technique that, to me, is the whole difference between a real life picture and a drawing that is just a drawing; one that borders subjects with actual lines. Sometimes his dog, Picasso, would wiggle his tail and sit at his feet whenever he reached for his oud and begin to sing along each time Saleh began to play. His favorite song was Zorooni (visit me), a famous old sad Egyptian song lamenting loneliness: “visit me once a year, do not forget me.”
Little did I know then that I would be visiting Saleh every moment of every second I’m holding a pencil and staring at a blank page.
I recently went through my old morning pages and found that I had written this three days after Saleh had died:
Third morning I wake up with him gone. The emptiness surrounding me and the lump in my chest grows bigger everyday. I’m still left hanging from a cliff, his hands are no longer holding me up, I’m holding on to nothing but a thin rope we were supposed to strengthen together. Now it’s just me, my grip, and the rest of my body and soul in the air. Just what am I supposed to do now? I feel lost and helpless, but I can almost hear him say “Hold on with a stronger grip, pull yourself up and you’ll get there, and I’ll be there. You’ll find me when you try. I’ll always be there.”
After Saleh’s death, and at the very moment I walked into his empty studio to finish the drawing, met the grief-stricken eyes of his assistants and took his lonely, confused dog into my arms I resolved to turn my grief into art. There was no better way to honor his memory. So I set my easel and looked at that drapery that used to give me so much pain with much more determination. I could feel him looking over my shoulder as I did my layering with the perfectly sharpened pencil he had prepared to show me, and I began to draw with my tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. Luckily there was no one else to watch me except Picasso, who sat huddled in a corner with his eyes over me until he fell asleep. From that day on I decided to turn his loss into a positive energy that simmers within and brings out the best that it can.
When my drapery was done I left out the background where the outline he had done for me to illustrate his technique was on the side. A small, unintentional gift that I will continue to cherish.
And from that day on I didn’t put my pencil down. I had found that unspoken language I could use whenever words were nothing but a fuel for war. In a time when Egypt was even more turbulent in the summer of 2013 people were becoming more and more polarized as I felt more and more alienated from everyone. My only refuge was the art that Saleh taught me, so I grabbed my pencils and tried to draw some more on my own. I decided to draw my cat, and since there was no way I could keep him still I had to copy from pictures. Later I decided to draw Saleh himself. It was a rather ambitious project for me, he hadn’t gotten to a point where he explained human skin and how to depict it. I put every bit of emotion I felt for his memory out there, and I know that if it hadn’t been for this, the madness that was happening around me and the unsettling words that came to me from the social media would have killed me. I could see Egypt on the verge of a civil war and I had never felt more frightened. My friends may not have realized it, but without uttering a single word I let my passion bare itself for the world to see, and miraculously I was able to pull everyone together to agree at least on one thing: my work. It was a chance for me to remember the important things, and I thought perhaps it was a way to remind my friends to cherish the people they love every second, because life is very, very short.
For that reason and for countless others I thank Saleh. He may or may not know it, but I do visit him everyday.
The streets are happy. The TV shows are happy. Fireworks never stop in my street. We have a new president. No one wants to hear any words of truth right now. Those who wish to speak of anything that is not remotely euphoric are considered party poopers. I keep my mouth shut as I have had it for the past two years. There’s a war going on inside me, but I’ve learned over time to live with it. I’m tired and drained of sharp argumentation. I’ve learned to marginalize my feelings and my sentiment and enjoy the day, but sometimes I fail to ignore a piece of news or a little article and the feeling overtakes me once more.
Now it’s all over me because I just finished reading an article by Ahdaf Soueif titled “Let Them Rejoice” that goes on to list the young people who are held captive in prison without visitation or even lawyer rights. All fine, energetic, well educated young people. Some were picked randomly and some have a history of activism. All from the age group that constitutes the majority of the population. All are the kind of people that a rising nation would anchor itself to if it entertained any hope for a better future.
There is nothing I can do about any of this except sit and take it. So I’ll take you with me and show you how I deal with this. We’re flying to other places and we’re talking about other things. We’re talking about art. I’ve never studied art, but I have an ignorant man’s drooling passion for it that I find myself drawn to museums and galleries like a magnet.
Let me take you to the sunlit hallways of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This beautiful old building that was originally a private property holds a treasure of the Renaissance art that always mesmerizes me. I remember last year when I went there with my family. We had one day to spend in Florence and we tried to compact the entire city in a few hours. By the time we were at the gallery it was going to close in minutes. We created our own tour and decided on the particular works we absolutely had to see and began our mission, racing from one work to another until it was time for the reason why we got in in the first place. There shone down on us Sandro Boticelli’s Primavera, spring, that beautiful, colorful, almost sparkling painting bursting with life, symbolizing love and, to me, hope.
Venus stands in the middle of the picture, yet the face that draws me is that of Flora, the goddess of flowers, who stands on the right. The serenity in her face and the soft, subtle smile inspire me. That’s the mental state I wish I could stay in all the time. Yes. All the time, no matter who says what and no matter who kills whom. I want to keep that face and I want to keep that inner peace that comes with it. Some people do that no matter what goes on around them. They give flowers. They blow me away and make me feel ungrateful.
Anyway, back to my journey.
How about London? I could sure use a nice cup of coffee while I take in the beautiful June breeze of Trafalgar Square, then eagerly fly up the gigantic stairs of the National Gallery and walk in silence and contentment as I let the refreshing scent of old wood awaken my senses and tickle my brain. Unlike the freaked out visit to the Uffizi (which I intend to go back to with more time on my hands), I was blessed with countless visits to the Gallery. Over there I’m a dreamy wanderer floating from one painting to the next. Sometimes a certain one grabs my attention and I stand still before it, sit down if I can, and stare at it for as long as it takes. A particular one that captivated me was eighteenth century Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. There stood a hunched, old woman reaching to a young woman’s face, while Father Time sat pointing at the face. The painting is very large, large enough to be a mural. So the first time I saw it I sat back and looked into it for a very long time to take in the lighting, the drapery, and the detailed feathers of Father Time’s wings. But in reality I think that it was the idea itself that grabbed me the most; the thought of time and what it can take away from you. Looking back, it wasn’t about the fear of getting old as much as it was about the things we lose over time; all those people and moments we take for granted.
Apart from Primavera, I seem to have an unusual taste in paintings; ones that have a sense of anguish and loss usually draw me. That’s something I wasn’t aware of until a friend of mine pointed it out to me on our visit to the Louvre as I wandered everywhere trying to show her that painting I saw on my first visit with my father when I was only sixteen. It was a painting of a screaming mother whose baby was snatched from her breast by a lion. I didn’t know the title of the painting and I didn’t know who had painted it, but the mother’s expression had stayed in my head for 24 years. I found the painting with a miracle. It was also from the eighteenth century, painted by Nicolas-André Monsiau and titled Le Lion de Florence, the lion of Florence. I could not understand how a human hand could depict emotion so truthfully, how it could – with a paint of a brush – create sound and send chills down your spine. This is the beauty of art.
And it’s the very transcendence of European art that grips a person like me, coming from another part of the world and living in a faraway future, and matches her silent cries with a flash of light stemming from a painting or a pair of eyes that draw me into the souls behind them. During my visit to the Louvre, when my friend gave me her observation of my taste, I was a little drawn into myself, I didn’t know if it was true that I went after such paintings. It was too soon for me to accept that, but then my feet were suddenly stapled to the ground before a nineteenth century painting by Paul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre, The Young Martyr. It depicted a beautiful dead young woman with tied hands, floating in dark water against a dark background, but her face was lit by a halo that was brilliantly reflected in the ripples. If you look closely in the dark background you see a silhouette of a man on a horse about to run off. I’ve read some interpretations that the silhouette was a symbol of moving on, of letting go, and hoping for a better future. To me, though, it was like a fragment of an ongoing war that resulted in the death of this young beauty. The focus on her in the painting told me that she was what mattered the most, she was the only thing at stake, and yet she was lost and the battle continued, indifferent to her loss, and the water carried her further away, out of the sight of the man on the horse, but further into the center of the picture, making her forever the most important, irretrievable loss.
Just like the young men and women in my country who dared to dream for their homeland. Some gave their lives, and some are losing it slowly behind bars, and the battle wages among us, making us lose focus and sight of what really is at stake.
So this is what I do when the ugliness begins to choke me. I travel with my brain to beautiful places and recall the memories I have of them. Yet somehow I always find myself coming back, seeing everything with the lens of the anguish and sorrow that I feel. Albeit with a deeper perspective that shows me that my feelings are universal. Art delivered the hands of the masters over time and across continents to me, to pat my shoulders and tell me that I’m not alone.
When I used to work I used to stare uncomprehendingly at colleagues who used to complain to their bosses that they wished the day had an extra 24 hours so they could accomplish everything. It made me feel weird because I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with the 24 hours God gave us. Reflecting on this years later in think I figured out my own humble answer. Sometimes recognizing the importance of time comes when your life stands still. It’s true that busy people running all over the place half the time wish for extra hours within the day to get everything done and to have time to rest. They’re always baffled at how fast time flies before they’re aware of it, but they spend it so busy with what they’re supposed to be doing that in reality they’re not actually conscious of the time, and that is why it slips. I think that the best way to truly grasp the significance of time is not by losing it or having it slip through your fingers as you race to compact all your chores and obligations, it’s by standing still and looking at it, observing it.
I never thought time could be so long, and I never thought it could go so slowly, but it does specifically when you’re conscious of it. You’re never fully aware of how long 30 seconds can be until you actually wait for them to pass. This whole talk and writing of time feeling like it stood still or feeling like it’s dragging its still, heavy legs isn’t coming out of nowhere. But I don’t mean it here except in the most positive sense. There is a reason why 24 hours are about as long as a day is, because 24 hours is already an awful lot and there is so much that can be accomplished in it. Take it from a jobless, childless, manless woman like me. I have no reason to be running around pleasing anyone while juggling that with a career I’m so desperate to keep. My time is mine and that is why I’m so aware of how precious and rich it actually is.
When divided by intervals of 30 seconds it becomes clearer. To some people 30 seconds is a small, uncounted part in a more precious 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and to others even an hour. But in my life 30 seconds are in many ways an eternity. 30 seconds is how long it takes for my milk to heat up in the microwave while I stare longingly at my coffee waiting for it to run through my veins and bring me back to life. 30 seconds used to be the hour of torture when my trainer first introduced me to planks and showed me what it would be like for your muscles to squeeze the breath out of you. Now it is the unending eternity of Hell when I battle with gravity and do those complicated push ups that require some bizarre knee on top of elbow action while bouncing from all fours. 30 seconds is more than enough for a silent response to a question to become awkward. It is also just enough for your entire tense, anxious body to loosen up and relax once you take a conscious decision to take a deep breath, close your eyes AND meditate. 30 seconds is that final, breathless push to the summit point on a mountain, that moment when you see it but don’t believe you’ve actually made it until you touch that sign that tells you you’re there. It’s the difference between your sense of desperation and sense of accomplishment, between the crash and the hope.
That is the only answer I can think of for why there aren’t 24 more hours in the 24 hour day, because it’s all right there, you just need to look at it and appreciate it to realize that it can give you a lot more than what you actually take from it.
Divided into a series of 30 seconds, I can live and laugh and cry and grow old in just a day.
A few days ago a close friend of mine posted a picture of two Muslim women dressed in black wearing the headscarf in a conservative fashion, covering not only the hair and neck but a large part of the chin as well, leading a line of little girls shrouded completely in black, their faces unseen, and their hands were tied together in chains. I normally don’t pay much attention to the many shares my friends post on Facebook because over the past few years I’ve realized that hardly any of the articles or pictures are accurate, but my friend’s horrified comment next to the picture made me want to see what the caption said. I clicked on it and went to its original post. The caption associated with the picture read “Muslim girls being lead off in chains to meet their new husbands.” Looking around within the picture I could see that the women in the background had their hands on their chest in what was clearly a rhythmic beating. I realized that I was looking at a Shiite Ashoura procession. The girls covered in black and chained were performing a reenactment of the aftermath of the battle of Karbala where the granddaughter of the prophet was brought chained to the Caliph in Damascus after her brother had been decapitated. Shiites mark this time of year to be a time of mourning and sadness and recall the heroism of the prophet’s descendants in the face of tyranny.
There were over five thousands likes and thousands of shares. There are over fourteen thousand likes to that picture as I write this and a sea of comments that doesn’t seem to end. Most of the comments are hateful rants towards Muslims and Islam that go all the way to extermination. Some have actually commented that Hitler “started with the wrong religion.” And in between these comments there were those who were trying to show the reality of the picture but they were either being ignored or shunned. The thread had become a powerhouse to the stubborn, angry ones who didn’t want to be told they were ignorant. Comments like “we don’t need to know the truth, this happens anyway” or “it doesn’t matter if the picture isn’t true” received dozens of likes.
Apart from the clear Islamophobia inherent in the post, there was more importantly a brazen show of disrespect to the audience that reminded me too much of the kinds of posts I see everyday about the situation in my country, where suddenly all people ever talk about is politics. There was a clear attempt to stir up emotions, and for the past three years most of the posts I’ve seen about Egypt were of this kind. One would think that ignorance is silent, receiving, acted upon, but I realized that there’s really no sound louder than the sound of ignorance, and no people more confident and outspoken than those who have no idea what they’re talking about.
We’re all ignorant about many things, and in difficult times when feelings are sore it’s hard to remain reserved and not say something, anything, to let the steam out. What we’re usually doing then is just that: letting out steam. We’re not adding anything and we’re definitely not receiving much. In conversations like these no one is even listening; it’s hard to dissociate what we’re receiving – be it a comment or a picture or a piece of news – from our feelings and from our previous related experience, so our reaction is usually marred by whatever that thing we’re receiving has conjured up. Rarely is it merely a reaction with the same size and magnitude of the action itself.
My friends recently bullied a person who was trying to pinpoint a technicality in the Egyptian justice system. She could have been saying something worth paying attention to or she could have been talking gibberish, but she was stating a fact worth looking into first before deciding on the value of her words or even her political allegiance. Yet somehow my friends quickly dubbed her as a voice from the enemy camp and tucked her away into a categorical mental box. She was immediately dragged into the forcefield of the powerhouse. Perhaps they knew her allegiance beforehand and perhaps they didn’t, but there was nothing in what she said, in my opinion, worth conjuring all of that. That is why I use the word “bully” and I mean it in every way. The mere fact that she was not joining in on the wailing automatically placed her in the opposite camp. They started jumping on her words and taking them to further hypothetical ends she never explicitly expressed. Needless to say the conversation got unnecessarily ugly from all sides, and I watched mortified as my friends continued to shoot at that person even though she had withdrawn from the conversation and blocked half of them. I actually considered interfering to her benefit, neither to attack them nor defend her, but rather to show them what their emotions made them do, or to just show them what the conversation looked like to me from the outside, but I thought better. My friends were way too emotional that I knew I would be risking being placed on the enemy camp along with her. I would say that that shouldn’t happen because, after all, they were my friends and they knew me well, but in reality I didn’t think our wounds allowed us to see each other anymore.
Behind the safety of the keyboard there is a liberty many of us aren’t really aware of. It just acts itself out as we clack our emotions away. Some people become passionate lovers and others become dreamy children, but the troubling ones are the sociopaths. I read some of the words in the comments on that picture of the little Shiite girls and I started wondering what the people who wrote those words were like in their actual lives. I looked at their profiles and there was nothing out of the ordinary, yet they seemed to be so ignorant of Muslim culture that they’ve been easily manipulated by fear of the unknown. I couldn’t help comparing them with our situation at home. Some of us show indifference to the suffering of others simply because they happen to come from the wrong side of the political camp. I know some such people personally, and some I know very, very well, and I know that they are nothing but regular individuals leading quiet, ordinary lives. It’s disturbing to wonder how many nice people in our lives hide inside them hating, aggressive, vulgar sociopaths that only come out in the virtual world, but I think the reality is that ignorance of the other has generated unbearable fear, a kind of fear so out of proportion that it can be easily manipulated into anything. Somehow, this fear only finds solace with the fear of others. From behind the screens we, the ignorant, bond and our confidence grows until we’re ready to gang up on anyone who dares to challenge the comfort of our ignorance. We choose to leave our real world and forever live in our powerhouse, and somehow, the scared, the lost, the confused become the confident, the know-it-all, the judgmental.
It scares me to think of what humans are capable of producing in collectivity, and I place myself as no exception. This realization that one is “not alone” is of course comforting, but it can have very dire consequences.
Wow! I just walked out of my kitchen with some very scary realizations about myself. I’ve had this strong desire to hold time standing still for so long I’m starting to see what my life really looks like inside my head. I’m in one of those gloomy, sorry weeks and I haven’t been clearing anything I use in the kitchen. Coffee mug used? Right where I left it. Next day other coffee mug used? Still there. Tray out? Right where I left it with its corner sticking out the edge of the table. Spoon used? Yes, right next to her sisters in the sink. Day after day with mug after mug and spoon after spoon, and before I’m aware of it I have a disgusting kitchen with piles of ridiculously dismissed items that hadn’t really needed more than a quick rinse to begin with. Now if I try to look for a clean spoon I wouldn’t find one. All would be used.
That is precisely what I do with the life I have outside my kitchen. I hold on to everything, good or bad. Each bad experience, no matter how small or big, comes in, carves something in my gut and sits right there, and I do nothing to clear it. I leave those experiences intact instead of picking them up and working out where they need to be stacked so they could be more useful and less painful. Needless to say, I dig into my brain for one creative thought and can’t find any; all are too busy twirling around old experiences, keeping them alive and simmering.
My kitchen is the perfect visual representation of my mind. And I can’t count the number of times I was advised by close people to let go. Somehow I find this to be the single most challenging uphill task I have to take. Everything around me seems to be screaming at me to get over myself. I see it in that bored look my cat gives me whenever I start to space out and stare emptily at the TV, in the janitor’s snicker when I fuss over the lit cigarettes in front of the elevator, and now it’s crept into my dreams.
Yep, my dreams. Now as I write this the dream I had last night is actually falling into place. I dreamed that my sister and I were waiting for our mother to show up in some mall and she didn’t. I got worried about her but my sister didn’t seem to be as concerned as I was. I checked with my aunt and she didn’t seem concerned either. I was so frustrated that no one was worried, but when I checked with a friend of mine and she seemed to conceal something, I kept pressing her until she walked into a room and came out with my mother. I rushed to her and hugged her, but she didn’t hug me back. Her body was cold, but it wasn’t the kind of cold that works its way through the skin from the weather while the core is still warm; it was that inner, lifeless cold that crept its way out through the skin and to the hand that’s touching it.
My mother was forever gone, and no amount of persistence brought her back to me. I was the only one holding on to something that was no longer there, unlike my sister and my aunt, who had accepted the fact that she was gone and simply let go–or so it seemed in my dream. Holding on to the memory of my mother’s presence in my life has been like taking a deep, satisfying breath of fresh, salty sea air. But because it’s just a memory, the air soon becomes a burden and nothing can relieve me except a powerful exhale. That’s what letting go is like; it’s like a much needed relief of a burden ripping at your chest, and I’ve been living my life with just an inhale.
But seriously now, I’m not sure what this is, to be honest. So before I conclude this particularly pointless post I’m going to go ahead and blame it on Cairo, as I always do with everything that annoys me. So maybe it’s a Cairo thing? Because I look around me at Cairo’s streets and whoa! That is one big grimy, slimy old kitchen that hasn’t been cleared up since the Mamluks. Cairo has layer after layer of history, and on a less romantic note, layer after layer of garbage and abandoned junk either crowding backyards of buildings or creeping into their service stairs, making them nice little hubs for rodents and reptiles. Many people have grown so accustomed to the mess around here that they no longer take notice of it. They’re aware of it, but they just accept it as the sorry reality that is their home city. It creeps into their subconscious and puts them in a bad mood each time they hit the streets, which could explain the road rage and the street fights and the honks. So yeah, Cairo has crept into my subconscious and gave me this messy kitchen. And yes of course you’re reading this messy post, because how can I be creative with a mind as overloaded and messy as that kitchen, or as Cairo?
A few days ago I was clearing some old junk in the house and I found a large file with old documents. My father rarely threw away any papers, in fact he used to make dozens of copies of each document he deemed important and put a copy in every drawer and shelf. That way he eliminated the need to search and, of course, he assured quick accessibility in case he ever needed to refer to a certain document for whatever reason. I came across legal documents and slips of old payments made to him or by him, things that dated back to the 1960s and onwards, and in the midst of the piles of paper I found a copy of two letters mailed to us by my granduncle. One letter was for ten pages and the other for five pages and included attachments. Yep. There were legal documents stapled to it, clearly referred to throughout the letter.
The minute I held the letters in my hands flashes of memory came rushing back to me. I remembered myself opening the door and receiving one of those thick, fat envelopes that contained one of the many letters he used to send to us, I remembered the compassionate smile on my father’s face as he read through it (actually in my last memory of such letters my father merely skimmed through the pages), I remembered my grandmother’s face whenever my granduncle was mentioned to her even in passing, and I also remembered that nothing steered her out of a bad mood except a certain anecdote about him which my uncles used every now and then to cheer her up.
My granduncle held a grudge against my father and my uncles for so many years and died before he ever got over it. I never fully understood what the problem was, it had started long before I was born and I grew up merely overhearing conversations about it with repetitive references to certain people – clearly villains – that I had never met and curses to others I knew for something appalling they had apparently said at some unfortunate hour. Near the last years of his life that problem was clearly all he could think about. So he bombarded my father with lengthy phone calls and fortified them with those meticulously detailed, highlighted, subtitled, page numbered and cross-referenced letters.
I held the copy in my hand and studied the handwriting; it was neat but also very shaken. Based on the dates I could tell that he was in his late eighties when he wrote them. That is about a time in which he didn’t always recognize close people, yet he could certainly remember in detail what happened 20 years earlier. I tried to make sense of what I was reading, but since I hadn’t been in on the origin of the problem, the letters, to me, were at an advanced level; there was no way I could understand what he was talking about without sufficient background information. In fact, reading on, I could tell that there was more than one problem, things that had to do with a house, with a cemetery, and lots, lots of conspiracies. There were stories inside stories and there were cows and buffalos involved:
My mother became very ill and she had three requests from me:
1. That I should not bury her in the village but instead bury her in the city with the Gizans [residents of Giza, a suburb of Cairo]. 2. She had a share with in a buffalo with Abo Hammad’s children, that I should give the buffalo to Hamdy [my uncle] because he was a student of medicine and administered her shots. 3. She shared a cow with Haj Hindy, that I should give the cow to my sister Saniya because she was poor … I did what she asked and sold the cow … and gave the buffalo to Hamdy…
I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did when I read that paragraph. To me, the entire letter, despite how organized it was, made absolutely no sense. I knew that there was some well structured logic in there, but no one could possibly decipher it except those who were physically present around the time all those things happened.
What puzzled me, however, was the fact that my father actually got out of his way to make a copy of those letters. What on earth was he thinking? But each time I remember my grandmother laughing at that anecdote I can’t help concluding that the copies were probably intended to travel to my four uncles and three aunts. For discussion, you think? Of course not. Probably just for laughs. I know that he eventually became a major source of entertainment for the family.
My granduncle was a very athletic English teacher who always took pride in the fact that he participated in the 1936 Berlin olympics. He also boasted – sometimes condescendingly – that he was the one who introduced my father to my mother, whom he referred to as a Saudi princess (she was the daughter of a school principal in Medina, but who was checking?)
Sadly, my granduncle’s daughters grew apart from us, but recently we’ve been making efforts to communicate. The only thing that makes me think about him and my father with peace is that my father was right there holding his hand when he was on his deathbed, and that his daughters never stopped checking in on my father during his illness, and that he was elated when he saw them just a few days before he passed away himself.
And this is in spite of what my granduncle had written in one of the two letters classifying major wars, subtitling it “The Longest War”:
The First World War (1914-1918) lasted for four years and was among world countries
The Second World War (1939-1945) lasted for five years and was also among world countries
The Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) lasted for eight years
But the war between the Abdel Fattah family and their cousins began ten years ago and hasn’t ended until now …
As wise and foreseeing as the elderly can be, I’m glad that my granduncle was wrong about that last war he mentioned. Those who remain among us from the old, turbulent days, my cousins and my father’s cousins have nothing but laughter and loving, endearing thoughts about my granduncle, his grudge and of course his letters!
Did I ever tell you about the time when I was 7 years old and was left alone on a plane heading to Ottawa?
I was flying to Montreal with my parents and friends of the family. We were seated in front rows and our friends – whose daughter was at my age – were in the back, so I spent the entire flight sitting with them. When the plane landed I decided to go back to the front to find my parents and remind my mother of my little bag. I went up to my seat and found that my parents had already left the plane – trusting that I was leaving with their friends – and I went back to my friend’s family and found that they had left too. The door was closing and the flight attendants were buckling up in preparation for the final stretch to Ottawa. In shock and despair I tried to meet my new fate and go back to my old seat, but I began to cry. I got up, ran to the flight attendant and with a quivering voice I said “I want to go down.” She was shocked. “Where are your parents?” she asked, “Did they leave you in the bathroom?” The story was too complicated for me to explain in the midst of my gasps and yelps. So I just repeated my request. Soon I was let out of the plane and taken in a nice car to the terminal, where I found my mother a weeping wreck and my father trying to book a flight to Ottawa.
It was the most traumatizing experience of my life then.
Years later, as the hormones began to rage and I became an angry 14 year old wondering why oh why my father wouldn’t let me go down to the nightclub with my friends, I began to wonder what would have happened if I really had gone to Ottawa and begun a new life of my own (ignoring the fact that there existed authorities that wouldn’t let a 7 year old just “be” on her own and a father who would come get me a couple of hours later).
When I was 16 I considered running away with my cousin and finding a new life in America. The reason was that I was offended and insulted that my father objected to the presumptuous dance we did on the roof of the house, right next to the water storage tank (which is usually placed on the highest point in the roof). I had no visa to the US and there was no way I could apply for one alone at 16. Yet still I asked myself later what if I did run away then? Who, or rather what, would I have become?
I spent a good deal of my life asking these kinds of questions to myself, and I still catch myself doing this every now and then.
What if I did marry the stalker who knew where I lived and knew every member of my family and had the guts to walk into my father’s office and ask for my hand in marriage?
What if I hadn’t put on the Muslim headscarf at 22? What if I hadn’t taken it off at 39?
What if I hadn’t taken my editing job in Cairo and went after what I wanted and applied to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government after I finished my studies in AUC? What if I got accepted then? I would have never left Boston, that’s for sure, but what would my life have been now? What would my problems be? Would I have had time to clack away on my keyboard or would I have been too busy lecturing and writing academic books and brushing shoulders with policy makers?
What if I did accept that job offer I got on Aljazeera when I was 30 and moved to Qatar? Perhaps I would have continued on in my career as an editor, and I certainly would have had a very different world around me, shaping my view of everything.
What if I wasn’t so intimidated by the UK’s old quarantine laws for incoming pets and put my cat in there for 6 months and found a job in London when I had the chance? (Yes I’m one of those crazy cat women that let their cats run their lives, but in truth I think my cat was and still is just an excuse).
What if I did convert to Shiism when I considered it?
What if I did tell that self-righteous jerk exactly what I thought of him?
What if I did go out to dinner with that Canadian stranger on the plane?
Many times when the world takes on a shade just a little bit darker than the usual dark I find myself asking these questions and wondering about those alternative lives I could have had. My mind works them out perfectly in my head that I think of them more as parallel lives of parallel selves I already am. Each of those lives does fulfill a bit of me, or perhaps they fulfill the me I was in different phases of my life.
But in the midst of all of this I seem to forget the life I did have.
I didn’t walk away from my family at a young age, I stayed with my parents till the last day of their lives doing the best I could to be good to them. I stayed in my country and became more rooted in the culture and more comfortable with its oddities. I stayed in my job and through it I was exposed to a world I may never have gotten the chance to see. I got close to Muslim Brotherhood members and was exposed to their thought. I got to speak in front of the Danish editor who commissioned the cartoon that offended millions of Muslims worldwide and looked him in the eye, and I got to see the other side of the coin too. I met Hizbullah fighters, commanders, slept in their villages, had their coffee, shared their dishes, and heard inside stories of the 2006 war on the Lebanese south. I ran away from tear gas with a fearless friend I only met because I chose to stay in this life. I thought, I considered and I reconsidered until I became the person I am today. I had first hand experience about everything I talk so passionately about because, thankfully, I’ve seen stuff. That to me is worth a thousand books written on theories, based on theories, and protected by the comfortable bubble of assumptions and secondhand knowledge.
I felt the suffocation of my job, my life, the message I thought I was carrying to the world. I got disenchanted with it all and went and climbed Kilimanjaro, then went to the Himalayas, then the Andes. And somewhere in the middle of this I went to Florence and stole six perfect shots of David with my own camera right under the guards’ noses.
I may not have been able to reflect on all of this if I’d chosen to take any of the different life paths that presented themselves to me. Much of what I went through gave me pain, but I don’t believe I would have learned anything if it hadn’t.
So I know it sounds miserably cliché, but really, I just wouldn’t have had it any other way.