Look at me right now. Wow! Talk about fear of writing. Fear of consequences. Fear of this thing I keep flying around in my head and thinking of as a final destination (like I was going to wake up one day and find that I magically landed on it) turning into something serious. I already feel anxious. Like a load was just placed on my chest, like something really bad is going to happen, like I need to get the hell out of here right now and get some air. This thing I have is really serious. It’s not just procrastination in its smooth, common almost romantic sense associated with artists and great creators. No. This thing has claws and is apparently ready to put up a fight for survival, or a fight to keep its grip over my throat. But I think that the mere awareness of it is a good sign for me. I’ve come a long way now after some 24 years of suffering from it and not knowing exactly what it was. I first sensed it when I was seventeen and had to study to get myself into college and it stayed with me ever since. I attributed it to everything from depression to the evil eye and black magic (Yes my mind goes in those directions at times). I felt alone, I felt sick, I thought I was cursed with a horrible affliction. I continued to think that way until I began to read more about it and discover that it is a very, very common occurrence, especially for those who have a problem with discipline in their lives, who can’t seem to get their stuff in an orderly fashion, and if those kinds of people had a guild I’d be its mistress.
I have listened to interviews* and read articles** about this very subject and I can now say with confidence that no, it’s not cancer, and it’s not a curse an evil old woman cast on me when I was a child. It’s more like a flu, but it takes all shapes and forms and it is entrenched in self-confidence and esteem. It plays on your own image of yourself, what you think you are and what you aspire to be. It makes you doubt yourself. It falsely has you believing that acceptance, acknowledgment and praise are the litmus test to how good you are. It gets in the way of you realizing that success only comes when you earn it, and you don’t just earn it with hard work, you earn it by learning how to handle failure, by expecting it as part of the natural course of things, accepting it when it comes, and embracing it as a learning experience and as the first open door to a growth opportunity. Now that I have realized this and am preparing myself for failure, I think I’m finally posing a serious threat to my saboteur; this obnoxious man standing over my shoulder and snickering at everything I write, sometimes even snickering at my thoughts and my dreams. I’m going to snicker along with him and say “you know what? I know I might fail, but I know that there’s only one route to my dream and that route is a one way road. I can’t go back even if I wanted to. I wouldn’t be myself if I did, and if I stopped it would be the end of me. So come and join me on the ride because I know that you’re not going anywhere. I might as well accept you, I just won’t pay that much attention to you anymore.”
It sounds easier said than done, but in itself this too comes gradually, and always begins with a compromise. So sometimes I find myself procrastinating within procrastination, or trying to get out of a procrastination situation by accepting a modified version of it. In other words, instead of actually forcing myself to write about this thing that I want to write the most about, I start writing about something else, like about this very fear. This is precisely what I did with this post today. The upside of it is that I stayed put and wrote. I didn’t get up and I didn’t leave the room and I didn’t get out for fresh air (I wouldn’t get much of it anyway as I live in central Cairo).
So that was one of my fears. The Oh-my-God-this-is-serious-and-I-might-suck fear.
There is another, more profound fear that I read no answers to anywhere. The fear of not having much to write. I could write a story in half a page and not know what on earth to add to it. I could deliver my point in a paragraph and then stare blandly at the screen in bewilderment. How do writers get all those things to say? It’s the fear of not having enough to say.
On a creative writing course I wrote once a short story in one paragraph. It was about a woman who suffered from domestic violence. The story ended with a shudder she felt as she heard her husband turn the key at the door. My teacher was very pleased with the story but asked me why I stopped so abruptly? Why didn’t I describe the man and what he might have said to the woman? That was a part of the “showing” approach, where the reader could see the characters with you and could see the profundity of what was happening to them without you overusing your adverbs. I don’t know why something in me couldn’t go much further. I could imagine the man but I couldn’t quite put him in words (I suck at descriptions anyway). I tilted more towards allowing for a reader’s imagination to wander. I would like the reader to imagine rather than show him myself (a fancy way of saying I don’t know if I can do that). That is not very satisfactory, I know. It needs to be fixed, or at least I need to learn how to draw the line between saying just enough without rambling on and stopping too short.
But I think I partially arrived at the problem. Relying on too much imagination is likely to alienate the reader. It takes on a more detached, holier than thou approach that I myself wouldn’t want to be subjected to. My problem is that I forget that the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same background information I have. Perhaps they need to be familiarized with the things I took for granted. And it’s in this background bit that all the leg work begins. Here’s where I face the fear of not having done my homework so well and ending up being thrashed by a real life snickering saboteur who is more than willing to tell the world what kind of a loser I am.
I’m thinking way too much ahead anyway. Again, I’m giving my fears a voice when what I really, really need to be doing at this very early point is write. Just write.
**A particularly eye opening article published on The Atlantic that has stayed with me is Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators by Megan Mcardle.
This beautiful city
Finally fights to save her love
She awakens from the long sleep
and uncounts the river jewels taken from her bed
the sapphires he tried to use as eyes
the emeralds of envy
and the blood diamond she’d had as her heart
She uncurls each sacred story
and flies those ribbons beginning to sing again
She turns and turns
in the spinning top of hope
in the spinning top of hope
— Linda Cleary (January 2011)*
This beautiful city haunts me. She holds me by the scruff of my neck in a dead, weary grip. I know that it would let go if I did but I never try. I see other worlds but something tells me I’d fall through a bottomless abyss if I let go. And so I stay. I don’t know what kind of magic Cairo works through people with her veined, callous hands, but she draws them in with a permanent enchantment and lives within them forever. There are those who manage to escape the spell but they never stop thinking of her. It haunts them everyday.
This city has shown me a thousand extreme faces in one lifetime. Sometimes those extremities race each other towards me within a second. I see vice and virtue walk hand in hand in the street and I see no child in the middle. One of them breeds the other and the other the same. They can’t exist without each other.
This beautiful city is back where it started. It has turned and it has turned in the spinning top of hope until it could turn no longer. The tyrant has hammered the final nail to her coffin as she dizzily fell into eternal despair.
This beautiful city has put on her ugly face. She lies in the arms of vice and sets out a trap for those who, by taking their brisk lively strides, by inhaling fresh, young breaths, by holding on to their books, by existing, are threatening her with hope once more.
The blood diamond heart has stopped beating and turned to stone. The river jewels are scattered everywhere, crushed by the judge’s hammer. The sapphires and emeralds taken away for good. The ribbons have been undone, pulled away and torn with delicate strands of hair and ripped to shreds.
This beautiful city has lost the fight. Her children have bathed themselves in blood, their kin tossed and turned in mud to put out the fire ignited in their souls.
What more can a young man give to this greedy witch other than his own life? And she still won’t stop killing him a thousand times over. How further unjust can injustice go? How can a man ever stop this atrocity of humiliation from continuing except by ceasing to continue himself? Should an Egyptian take a conscious decision to stop having children so that whoever is alive today would be the last? Let the young beating hearts grow old with her until they are no more. Let her take pride alone in the tyrants she has lain with over thousands of years. None of us care. Let her have her history. All we need is justice and, if it’s not too much to ask, life.
*The above poem was written by English poet and writer Linda Cleary who lived in Cairo for 5 years and was present at the time of the uprising in January 2011. I revisit her words today, three years later, after Mubarak and his police aids have been cleared of all charges in the murder of protesters. Below is a video shot of the families of the victims after learning about the verdict.
Egypt just keeps coming at me. I took a vow of silence more than a year ago and it just wouldn’t let me enjoy it. Everything that had been going on had been way too much for me to take so I decided to shut down and stop following the news or listening to idiots talk. Yet somehow this country manages to creep its treats under my doorstep and surprise me just when I think I can’t be more surprised.
The possibility of change three years ago played on all of our emotions; we were ecstatic despite our shocks. We knew that we lived under injustice and everything colorful a sixty year old dictatorship could fashion, but we hadn’t seen ugliness and looked it in the eye until we saw cars and tanks driving over hundreds of protesters and crushing them like they were grass, or anti-protest officers dressed in civilian clothing dragging bodies and dumping them in the trash. This only fueled us more to go further into the streets and bring this aging dictator down. Everything he had built around himself to keep money flowing into his pockets and servants lining to bow before him had to be dismantled. We weren’t naive, we just went by the book and thought our numbers would suffice. We didn’t realize that this web of trust and support he had built around himself was the very pillars upon which the entire system stood, and that it was so rooted into the fabric of the country that, with one metaphoric press of a button, those numbers that marched hand in hand to bring him down could turn on each other, become life enemies and start calling each other names.
People got shot dead in the streets, there are videos that show police snipers shooting live bullets from rooftops of the ministry of interior. Thousands got shot in the head and in the chest for the world to see. The shooters were identifiable, by name and face, but none of them got convicted. But that’s not it. It’s the freak show that keeps topping itself with more freakish things. It’s that freak show’s ability to shock you by making your worst case scenario expectations – those farcical things you say out of doom that don’t make all that much sense – a reality.
What would have been a farce if said three years ago when we saw all that blood and saw the faces of those involved in it? That the culprits would be cleared of the charges and claimed innocent? That just happened. Mubarak and the head of the police at the time when all the killing happened have just received their innocence in court, and there are people cheering and singing and dancing in the street as I write this.
So you don’t have to go to great lengths to imagine how that freak show operates. It’s ridiculously simple. Think of a single woman TV anchor that shoots down the protesters with her words, calling them agents and traitors and shedding tears in front of the camera in sympathy for Mubarak, whom she calls a “father” for all Egyptians, and then the minute he steps down she hails the revolution and the patriots that brought an end to an era of injustice and tyranny. Watch her and a thousand others switch back and forth shamelessly like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Think of a row of women singing and chanting for Mubarak and saying that those 18 year olds deserved to be killed because they didn’t know how to respect the state. The state. Listen to their bizarre definitions of what a state means. Now visualize them wearing scarves on their heads; that Islamic head covering that is supposed to be a symbol of religiosity, kindness, modesty and in their view a submission to the higher will of God.
Think of major newspapers flaunting live ammunition preparations to combat foreseen protests expected to take place.
Think of famous columnists writing words of hatred, bigotry, xenophobia and occasional racism calling ordinary people to take up arms against each other, or to report their neighbors to the state if they suspect anything “unusual.” Now think of them hosted on TV as informative political analysts (by said TV anchor and the likes, of course) and continuing to write and publish in major outlets with no legal action taken against them. In fact, with not so much as a raised eyebrow from readers who proudly post those articles on their social network profiles.
Think of a man in a military uniform declaring that he has come up with an earth shattering invention that is able to remotely diagnose and cure a patient with AIDS or liver disease. Watch men dressed in white coats pointing a wireless device at a man walking back and forth and waiting for the device to signal which disease the man has. Now watch, again, said TV anchor host an “expert” who, after a fraction of a second’s hesitation, confirms that the device can detect and cure cancer as well.
Watch tyranny reap the harvest of decades of planned ignorance, poverty and disease that ate up millions. Watch it sit back and relax and wait for those millions to come back to it on their knees, crawling and asking for forgiveness of all their sins, for they have once dared believe that someone else might lift them out of their misery, not knowing that their subhuman lives were the best the state could offer. It was after all their own fault; they are too many. When counting how much the state needs to spend for them and for the hand tailored suits of the president that have his name threaded on the fabric with the finest touch from Italy, it simply can’t afford it. It’s doing the best it can to keep everyone happy. The president with his suits and the millions with the best lives they have ever known.
You figure out the rest of the freak show. Let your mind wander freely and see what absurdities it can come up with and you’ve got it, topped with worse and even more.
In the film Funny Girl, produced in 1968, Barbra Streisand plays the role of aspiring broadway star Fanny Brice. She forces herself into clubs and theaters trying to get herself on stage. When eventually she manages to drag the soul out of a director and he decides to hire her just to get her to stop yammering, he asks her “Can you roller skate?” With a brief pause she puts her hands to her waist and looks condescendingly at him, clearly offended by his question, and repeats his words with her nose in the air, “Can I roller skate??” She stresses so much on the “I” to emphasize her shock at his question.
The next scene is of Fanny sliding along the stage, completely off balance, taking down other skater dancers with her. She then justifies herself: “I didn’t know I couldn’t!”
To me, Fanny holds the secret recipe to success. She plunged herself into her dream and then began to struggle. She didn’t sit on the shore and think how much she couldn’t. In her mind, she was already there. She could roller skate, she could do anything a star could do.
Now that I go learn Italian twice a week. I’m Fanny Brice. Italian used to run around in my head all the time. There were times when I felt like it was simmering inside somewhere and just needed someone to lift off the lid. The more time passed with me not doing anything about it, the more frustration took over me, especially whenever I was supposed to understand that particular quote from Michelangelo as I read his biography, or felt the itch to jump into conversation with Italians, only to realize that all I’d be saying would be “Ciao! Come va?” (Hi! How are you?) and then idiotically repeating it if they ever answered.
Nevertheless, in my mind I spoke Italian. So whenever I remember that scene in the movie I realize that I wouldn’t ever get myself on stage if I wasn’t already there. And that goes with everything.
Can you speak Italian, Arwa?
Can I speak Italian?? Che domanda! (What a question!)
Can you ice climb, Arwa?
Can I ice climb?? Che domanda!
And so on ☺
I just need someone to lift off that lid and let all the aromatic simmering out. It’s funny how I realized that getting that lid off was such labor. My teacher looks me in the eye and asks me a question that I can perfectly understand but instead of answering I get this choking sensation in my throat. Everything gets jumbled inside and I only manage to dig out sounds, completely irrelevant words, and verbs in their infinitive. Being the witty professional that he is, he pretends to struggle to hear me or understand me whenever I try to help myself with some Arabic or English.
The one thing I’ll do differently from Fanny Brice is that I won’t ever EVER say “I didn’t know I couldn’t!” I’m going to drag everyone with me into my field. Of course I can speak Italian! I’m gonna throw myself in the middle of it and wade through all the laughs and come out as dignified as I will continue to see myself. There’s just no other way around this.
I’ve been having my comic moments with Italian, of course. So a sentence like “Nel tempo libero gli italiani vanno al caffè e parlano di calcio.” (In their free time, Italians go to coffee shops and talk about soccer) Becomes to Italian speaking Arwa “In the liberal age, Italians used to meet in cafes and talk about calcium.”
Good times. And a lot more to come. I’m rooting for my patient teacher. God bless him.
There was nowhere the cat could go but under the sofa. This was tremendous progress in its character. The pool man’s pole was so high and creepy thin the cat was convinced it was going to get it. It had been lying down on its favorite chair when the giant pole began to rise and dip itself into the mysteries of the blue water. It was a lot of restraint for the cat not to rush inside and to wait it out under a nearby sofa. And that amazing feat of courage paid off. The pole monster didn’t go much farther; it soon retreated. And the cat, forty-five minutes later, began to relax again, and the fur on its arched back and tail began to lay back in place, reverting the cat to its original size.
The cat had intellect and it was using it. The balance between instinct and intellect in its little head got the upper hand. Danger subsided. All was alright.
She’d been dreaming of this all her life. Since the age of sixteen she decided that she wanted to learn Italian. Because she was not the one paying for the lessons, her father insisted that she learned Spanish instead, said he would only pay for Spanish, and Spanish it was. She enjoyed it nevertheless but it didn’t seem to satisfy the thirst for linguistic music inside her head. In her mind she could speak and understand every word. She could read it well. When she was old enough to pay for her own Italian classes she couldn’t keep them up. She allowed work and politics and “faithful sisters” to define her life’s purpose. Suddenly, rallying for bearded men who spoke shiny words became more important to her than speaking Italian. And she let the years go by.
Then one day she woke up from her slumber and decided it was time to get her life back. What was that language she so wanted to speak? She thought with a smile in her head. The moment finally came for her final stretch with it. She sat in front of the teacher, dumbfounded. Words were racing each other inside her head but none of them were the ones she wanted to use. Everything came up to her throat and choked in there while her teacher looked at her with a compassionate smile. The silence was murderous. But she would not let it kill her dream. She was listening to Italian, the teacher was promising her Italian, and all was alright.
She was in white, standing in a crowd of eager women from different parts of the world. There was a wall separating them from a destination they had traveled thousands of miles to reach. It was now only a few short steps away once the door opens through that wall. The talking and the chattering echoed in the vastness of the mosque. White marble pillars stood eternally around them, cloaked in gold carvings, perfumed with Oud – the time old Arabian incense. The coolness of the powerful air conditioners and the lingering scent of Oud elevated her. The crowd was suddenly a part of the divine experience. All those women, barred from his blessed presence by the misogynistic sheikhs that have come to take his place despite their false claims to be his humble followers. All those women, standing patiently, waiting for the male ego to subside so that they could be with him at last, and tell him how the men have broken their promise to him to treat them well.
Then all at once the door opened and the women flooded into the forbidden quarters of the grand mosque. Joy filled them as some of them began to ululate, allowing their instinct to challenge the sin-minded conservatism of the men around them. Tears began to stream down her face as she rushed towards the shrine of the prophet. She walked into the sunlit platform where she used to chase the pigeons when she was only seven as her mother sat quietly in a corner and prayed. Back then women were allowed this proximity to the prophet at all times. Back then the entire mosque was her playground. She kept walking, enjoying the sound of the pigeons’ fluttering wings, stepping once again into her childhood, until she finally reached him. She stood there with a smile on her face, and all was alright.
She stared longingly at the wedding cake. She had been to a wedding in that hotel before and she knew how well they made those cakes. Most people she knew were chocolate cravers, she never was. Chocolate always came in handy to her on difficult times, but she was never a chocolate seeker. To her, the whiter the cake the stronger the lure, and if frosting was included her mouth would fill with saliva no matter what important event she was in. The wedding was coming to an end and she was worried they might forget to cut up the cake for the guests. Soon everyone began to leave and her heart began to sink when suddenly, her aunt came to her with a piece of the cake. She grinned and held it like an archaeologist would hold an ancient treasure. She took the first bite and peace drifted into her veins. And the world disappeared. And all was alright.
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.