‘Stop looking at your face in the mirror. It’s unsettling,’ Laila murmured to herself as she tried to ignore her unruly eyebrows, the grey roots of her hair and her puffy eyes. But it wasn’t unsettling because of the unease it made her feel at her appearance at this time of day, it was unsettling because of a lingering feeling she always had that there was another being of some form that followed her everywhere around the house. Looking at the mirror almost brought her face to face with that mysterious being. It shook her. In fact, it wasn’t only about her face, it was also about her eyes. When her eyes met her own on that specific moment she shuddered, like a faint wave of fear rushing quickly right through her. She recalled one time years before when she had been washing her face and the minute she had looked up she had thought she had seen in the mirror a black shadow rush right behind her. She hadn’t been sure if it was what she thought it was or if it was merely a strand of her hair. The only thing she was certain of, averting her own gaze in the mirror, was that if her son was still with her none of those beings would have dared to harass her.
When she was a little girl and had her night terrors her mother would bring her a small mirror and put it in front of her face, tracing her perfectly round cheeks and small, pointed chin with the tip of her fingers and pointing to the freckles on her face. “See how beautiful you are?” She would speak to her softly, “No ghost can prey on a beautiful smart girl like you. Ghosts are for lonely old women to worry about.” But she never relented to Laila’s pleads to stay with her in bed. She would insist that Laila had to put herself back to sleep, and if Laila persisted, she would lose her temper and slam the door, leaving her alone in the room with only the faint light of her small night lamp.
Through many nights alone in that dark room Laila taught herself strength and grew up a proud, upright woman, happy with her accomplishment. She taught Arabic at a mediocre primary school. Her stiff posture and sharp voice intimidated her students, and she often surprised herself by losing her temper with many of them. Laila was convinced that the ghosts never left her, that they showed up in her life in different ways to defy her. And whenever a little girl from her students talked back to her, she would think her ghosts hid in the little girl’s challenging look, until one day she slapped one girl so hard she dislocated her jaw. The girl’s parents saw to it that Laila never went back to teaching.
After that her only solace became her son, whenever she was with him her ghosts seemed to disappear. But one morning, on his sixteenth birthday, she woke up and found a note on his bed; he had gone off to fight in Syria. One week later she received news of his death.
She stood at the sink and focused on the water as it slithered through the protruding veins of her hands, filled her palms and splashed her face. She was unsure if the distant ticking she could hear outside was only of the wall clock in the hallway, and as she raised her head she wasn’t sure if the soft brush on the back of her neck was a stray strand of hair. She turned from the sink and reached for the towel. As she patted her face she could hear her own murmur repeated to her from the direction of the mirror. She resisted the urge to look back and carefully walked to the door and stepped out of the bathroom.
Lisa never thought the day would come when she would be stripped of all of her tricks to beat depression. It had always been a lingering enemy eavesdropping on her as she spoke with confidence to motivate her peers, or an overarching cloud hovering above her even on her happiest days. It was an unwelcome guest that always invited itself into her life, popping unexpectedly at mid sentence or rushing to her chest the minute she opened her eyes in the morning.
Time counted in Lisa’s life. How she managed it and how she used it defined her success. When she first began to feel doubts and unease she couldn’t understand what was wrong. Things seemed to be going well for her, she was warmly welcomed into people’s lives and her friends enjoyed her company. There wasn’t much room for negative perceptions of events because there was little time for her to ponder on things. She was hardly ever alone. She decided at first that this was an unknown force trying to pull her back, so she constructed a backfire system of words that she placed on autopilot and she let it run. Invasive thoughts like “What’s the use?” were met by “This is important!” “You’re no good” was hammered by “Keep trying because that’s what ultimately counts,” and “Forget it” was often crushed with “Let’s do this.”
With time, however, she discovered that this tactic was no more than a temporary painkiller. Each backfire silenced a single word, and instead of it tiring that dark force, it grew tired, and so did she. She decided that the mere act of firing back was an acknowledgment, attention given to an undesired force that only resulted in feeding that force and making it stronger. So she ignored it. Background self-talk of doubt, fear, frustration, and despair continued to roll in her head as she continued to ignore it and move on with her life. She redirected her immediate urge to backfire with more positive words in her talks, she turned it into a gush of energy that almost visibly invigorated her listeners. But there was no ignoring the sense of despair that began creeping in each night as she turned out the lights and went to bed.
Lisa began to feel that she was running out of ways to protect herself from depression. Everything she tried helped her only get on with her life, but it never permanently crushed the darkness.
Darkness! She said to herself one morning like she’d just made a groundbreaking discovery. This thing has a color. Lisa realized that even her recent attempts at ignoring that force weren’t working because they played on what it said, what thoughts it put in her head. Getting back at it or ignoring it, she was still listening. She realized that she had never looked at it. She had never seen what shape or color it had. She’d been afraid that if she did she wouldn’t recover, until that revelation of its darkness came through to her like a beam of light. She jumped from bed and looked around the room. The bed sheets were grey. The wood of the bed was a burned brown, and the walls were an ailing dark beige. She ran to her closet, burned wood, and looked inside. Her clothes were all shades of grey, dark blue, black, and an occasional white, yet at the far end of the rack she found the red coat and umbrella her mother had given her as a gift two years before. She’d thanked her dutifully and accepted the gift, had placed it in her closet and had never thought of it again.
She was unsure if what she’d discovered would help her, but as the rain began to trickle at the window she felt an urge to go out for a walk and have it wash away the noise in her head. She pulled on her new red coat, grabbed her red umbrella and went out, penetrating the grayness around her with a bright red color. It was her final act of defiance. She had initiated a silent war of colors.
It was daytime and he was not around. She sat on her bed, pushed the dusty shutters open and looked out the window, watching passersby and filling her senses with the spice-filled air. Haj Ali, the owner of the spice shop across the alley sat sipping his tea and counting the notes from his impatient customer for the third time, ignoring his protests. Lady Samira walked past his shop heading to the train station to meet her husband with elaborate make-up and a large wig to replace her old hair-do. She had been going to the train station every Tuesday for fifteen years. A few feet to the right of the shop Mabrook the butcher hammered at the ribs that lay on his table as three cats gathered subtly under his feet waiting for accidental droppings to feast on. A parked Mercedes honked protectively at every donkey cart that tried to pass through the little space it left, its driver impatiently eyeing the window two floors above her and looking at his watch. Her eyes traveled up and across the rooftops to a tiny square of sky she could see through the branches of a lonesome tree that stood outside her small window. She was now ready to leave it all and fly up the sky. Her mind had almost drifted when she suddenly heard the clang of his keys outside. He was back. Her heart began to race and she began to shiver.
At night the scent of the spices subsided as she lay on her bed staring at the darkened tree branches. She breathed the clean air as she relished the stillness of the night outside. The black leaves danced against the small sky that struggled to appear among the clustered shabby buildings. She rubbed her bruised shoulder as her tearful eyes stared at that single spot of sky with focus. Nothing else got into her vision. Nothing else existed. She let her mind wander beyond the leaves and the sky, taking her to another reality. Out there the world was at her feet. She had silk dresses and drove a car like the ladies she liked to watch in traffic lights as she stood crammed in buses. The longer she gazed beyond the leaves the more she was able to travel to another reality. Out there she was someone else. She was free.
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.