Archive for March, 2014

Leaving

Each time I travel I keep thinking of the distance from the place and the people I leave. I actually watch it happen from the minute I walk out the door to the moment I reach the clouds and go above them to wherever lies ahead. I sit in the plane, I look at the flight monitor and I think of the actual physical miles that start adding up by the minute. And upon my arrival it blows my mind how many oceans and continents have now come to divide us. I silently thank God that I live in an age where my loved ones are just a click away. I can always talk to them and see them on my little gadgets. I don’t have to write a letter and wait for three weeks or more to get a response. When my brother went to study in America in 1977 I was a four year old and I don’t remember much, but the sight of my mother’s tears pouring down her face all through the flight back to Cairo stayed with me until today. She helplessly waited for his letters and couldn’t call him except through a switchboard and a very, very poor connection they’d both be yelling to the receivers to hear each other across continents.

Now I’m about her age at that time and I don’t have to go through any of that hassle. It’s ironic how these gadgets have come to work in my life. At times they’re the cloak I hide behind and talk to everyone through when I’m depressed, a cloak that soon turns into thick, brass walls that trap me inside and echo my own thoughts and obsessions and so add to my misery. Yet at other times they’re simply the only window to the faraway world I think about while I’m away.

And it’s funny how the people in my life are constantly shifting from the flesh and blood real to the voice and text virtual. I’ve spent all of my life with my heart cut in half between the here and there. The accessible near and the dreamy far–a far that is often entangled in longing, worry, and much, much anxiety. I have very close friends that live in two different continents, none of them my own, and I have a whole half of my family, with cousins I grew up with, living in a fourth continent. Heck I’ve even fallen in love across continents! That never lasted, of course.

With all of these people, sometimes we would meet and talk about everything on these little gadgets and it feels good to think we’re close. But we know we never actually are. Nothing compares to the physical nearness of a person you care about.

And just as we happen to be scattered all over the world, some of us end up in countries with much turmoil, tearing at the hearts of those faraway from them. Phone calls after phone calls run back and forth to reassure each other that we’re OK, until we finally get together and try to will time to stand still and hold the moment for as long as it can, but it can only hold it for as long as a human can hold a breath. Eventually it lets go–as it probably must. But then I try to hold on to the moment in my head for as long as I can too but it brings no comfort to me to think of a moment I’m not living anymore. Eventually I let go and I find that it’s actually a relief. Each time I say goodbye to a close one as they leave – or as I leave – knowing that our paths would cross again gives a temporary soothing numbness that takes me on to the next moment, and the next, and the next.

The uncertainty and the disenchantment of living in Egypt right now does not make separation easy, whether I was the one leaving or the one left behind. Egypt, where I stayed and continue to stay, used to be the hub for everyone I knew. Everyone used to come back and stay and they would be willing the moment to stand still, wishing with all their might to come back. My mind races with thoughts on my future and the future of my family. Is this going to pass soon or will we all be strangled in a limbo? We’re living our everyday quite normally but there’s an overarching feeling of depression residing in the air. The economy is down and there’s little or no tourists walking around (it’s actually strange how the sight of tourists in Cairo’s streets was so characteristic it feels almost unrecognizable without them now). I can’t stop asking when will this nation pick itself up again and I know the answer is not soon, because right now it’s still busy dismantling itself into scattered pieces and there are some who are actually trying to turn the pieces into lots of even smaller ones.

But it doesn’t do any good for me to think too much. I’m just a dot in history. I’m neither judge nor God to know fate; I’m only a passing witness so small and tiny for the universe to see with the naked eye. So much has happened over the seven thousand year old history of my home country that I can never know what is going to happen. But I know that it all comes in cycles and that it will pick itself up again, though probably not in my lifetime.

I think that what I’m trying to say is that as seemingly exciting and rich a traveler’s life can be, with friends and loved ones in every continent, when the ground they once stood so solidly on – that anchor point they always came back to – suddenly begins to shake, all they can think about is how much they long for bringing everyone they love together and staying put with them in one reliably solid, safe place where no one can ever get hurt and no one ever has to say goodbye. I’d give up all my traveling and all my flying around for just this and the peace of mind that comes with it. That’s just the way I feel.

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The Kingdom and I: My Plight With Saudi Arabia

Good morning new day in Jeddah. It’s my last week here on this seasonal trip and, as usual, I’m getting anxious about my passport and my return visa. I always get anxious near the end of my trips to Saudi Arabia. Should I make that call and find out if it’s been issued and if I can have my passport back? Does that really speed it up or does it only aggravate? Sheer helplessness is my share as a woman, and as a “foreign” woman, whenever I visit.

What’s a return visa? That’s a long, twofold story. One part me, one part Saudi Arabian laws. Let me start with me.

My mother’s hometown was Medina, Saudi Arabia. Like many Medinans and other inhabitants of the hijaz area (the western coast of Saudi Arabia along the mountains) she was of immigrant descent. Many Saudis living along the Hijaz have Eastern European, Turkish, Central and South Asian, and even African roots. They’ve been living for generations in Saudi Arabia and are full citizens, yet their cultures, family names, and even accents, are an interesting hybrid you’ll find especially conglomerated in Medina. They always find themselves different from the rest of the peninsula because of the way many of them are brought up but, most importantly, because the Najd Saudis (indigenous inhabitants of the vast Arabian desert of the center and the north, covering Riyadh, and from which the royal family descends) see to it that they’re constantly reminded of their “unArabianness,” for lack of a better word. Stereotypes are exchanged between Hijazis and Najdis. The former call the latter “primitive bedouins” who mutilated the land of the Prophet and the latter call the former “pilgrim remnants,” like abandoned, unwanted leftovers from foreign pilgrims who don’t understand Islam the way God intended it. The real Saudi Arabia on the ground is in fact rich in its variation and multicultural society.

But that’s for a whole different post with lots of complicated details and I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. What I’m actually trying to tell you is simple: My mother was from Saudi Arabia.

Yet somehow, ironically, I’m still a foreigner by law. I’m still not entitled to citizenship even though there’s been lots of official talk that people like me, born to Saudi mothers, should be.

Fine. Where does that leave me?

Foreigners should get visas to enter Saudi Arabia. Woman foreigner? Woman foreigner must have either pilgrimage visa where she must enter with a group of pilgrims (this visa is seasonal, open only on certain months in a year, and confines the trip to certain cities within Saudi Arabia) or a regular visit visa in which a male guardian has to be involved; either as the person sending her the invitation from inside Saudi Arabia – in which case he would have to be present at the airport to meet her – or as a travel companion with his own visit visa (which by the way can be a multiple entry business permit lasting up to six months). Apart from the whole male guardian complication, if the male guardian is there and is available, the process should be pretty much straightforward, but in reality it can quite unpredictably take well more than a month.

I’ve had all kinds of interesting incidents on my trips to Saudi Arabia. On one occasion I was held at the airport even though my passport’s been stamped. I wasn’t allowed into the city because my uncle had to physically show up at the airport and show himself to the authorities. I was placed in a room full of women from Asia and Africa who had just arrived for work, waiting for their custodians to pick them up from the airport. Some were curled up by their things and sleeping, some appeared to have been in that room for very long hours – if not overnight – and certainly all of them were very, very exhausted. I was the only one fuming. The family fixer back then did his usual magic tricks and got me out.

As a way to get past all of this I decided that I would work on getting a residence permit based on my mother’s custody. This process ended all trouble for me for almost ten years. I only had to show up in the country twice a year to keep my residence going and, upon leaving, a return visa had to be issued each time. I’d be getting a piece of paper, stamp it at the airport, and it would be my means of reentering the country.

Complicated to many, but still pretty much straightforward. Believe me! Until then no action had started yet.

Then one morning my mother decided not to wake up again, and everything became a huge deal since. For the past four years I have been trying to move my visa custody from my mother to my uncle and it’s been proving to be more than an uphill task. You see, I happen to have an older brother, and according to custom, my brother gets priority in my guardianship. Never mind the fact that he is an Egyptian living in Cairo. Never mind the whole idea that the guardian needs to be a Saudi national living in Saudi Arabia so that I could actually get his custody for my residence permit in the same country he is in. I have a brother living in Egypt and my Saudi mother died, so as a “foreigner,” I should pack and leave. I have no privileges being the daughter of a deceased national. None at all.

The Saudi person who is helping me with my papers has been going here and there and checking in every direction he could to find out if there’s anyway we could still move that custody. He was presented with two solutions: Either my brother accompanies me to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo and writes an official renunciation of my guardianship, thereby officially moving it to my maternal uncles (I do have Egyptian paternal uncles but SHHHH!!) or I get my permit as a nanny in my own uncle’s household.

It may raise a few eyebrows, but red tape, tardiness, turtle speed and the occasional bumps on the road to any official paper work have actually made the nanny option quite appealing to me. As long as it doesn’t involve the embassy as well, which could mean more and more papers back and forth and officials taking vacations and locking papers up in their desk drawers, then at least I’m still only dealing with the ministry inside Saudi Arabia.

But a voice inside me tells me that something would be very, very wrong if I ended up with this option. So I’m going to go ahead and see if the embassy procedure in Cairo is in anyway doable, like if somehow miraculously the embassy is less tedious to deal with. They do have a whole new headquarters near my home now with a huge helicopter platform at the roof, so they should feel pretty fresh, eh? It actually took some five or more years to finish and lots of harassment to me by their Egyptian construction workers each time I walked to the gym, but I’ll try not to think too much of that when I walk in. The harassment part is a Cairo problem really, so let’s not confuse culprits.

I’ll just play it by ear till my residence expires. Until then, and in the coming few days, I need to restrain myself from thinking too much about whether or not my return visa has been issued yet and whether or not I can actually fly back to Cairo on the date scheduled. This is my predicament each and every time I come here. I have men doing this on my behalf (since it would be virtually impossible for me to do it for myself) and I really appreciate the help so I hate to push, but I never quite understand why they don’t get me out of their way from the very beginning by getting my shit done instead of leaving it till the last minute.

Apart from that, I have a little confession to make. I think a lot each time I go back to Cairo whether the whole experience is worth it. I think a lot about losing that permit and just not bothering with Saudi Arabia anymore, but it’s hard. I have family here. I have childhood memories. I care about the old places and the old cities. I care about the time old, authentic beauty and spirit in the little bazaars and the aromatic alleys and the holy places. I can’t let ugliness win, can I?

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Empty Spaces and the Cloud Above Me

Do you wake up on certain mornings wondering what in the world you’re still doing here? I do. Certain days and nights go by slowly no matter how busy they are. There’s unseen weight pulling you down, almost literally, and it’s like a smile and a word or two to another person is so much work. I walk around on certain days with a cloud of gloom hovering above me. I call it the memory engine. All this cloud does is shoot down memories of a better past I once had. And the more familiar the places I walk in the more powerful the memories and the thicker the cloud.

With the illness and death of my father my growing up threw itself on me with a sigh of relief after a long wait at the door. I’d been holding it back and hiding in the protective island my father put me in. Only with him gone did I realize that I had to start doing my own worrying and to start my own thinking of tomorrow. In his last days I was feeling thankful that I had him. I was sorry that he wouldn’t be there for the rest of my days but that at least I had him for some generous time. I was prepared to the idea of losing him, but I wasn’t quite ready to lose him. I now realize that I could never have been and never will be.

But I was neither ready nor prepared for the idea of losing my mother. I wasn’t aware of this until her absence became an actual reality, not just a passing nightmare that wakes me up horrified in the middle of the night and then slips away smoothly in the morning when I hear her preparing her breakfast in the kitchen. With my mother’s sudden death adulthood slapped me in the face. You see, to me there’s a big difference between growing up and adulthood. Growing up is learning to deal with your own problems and facing them on your own, adulthood is practicing it–with all of its dirt–and dealing alone with the scars that never stop marking your eyes, your smile, your heart, and your very soul (That dark dot gets bigger each time you get a strong urge to grab certain people, force them to the ground, and stomp on them repeatedly) until you no longer recognize yourself, or you don’t see the person you expected to become when you were young.

When the two makers and shakers of my life disappeared they left behind a ripping silence. I’ve kept everything in the house just the way they left it as if deep inside me some sorry self thought they might surprise me with a come back and be proud to find everything just the way they liked it. Or maybe somehow, subconsciously, it felt like a betrayal to their memory to change anything. Or maybe it was just my way of staying in their protection, as close as I could get to their physical presence which I still crave. But now I realize how much I’ve suffocated myself with this empty house. The silence and the unchanging place have rendered the absence stark. The morning silence of the kitchen, the couches, the chairs, the arranged picture frames all scream at me day and night that their rightful owners are no longer there, that I’m alone in a house large enough to fit a family, a big happy family. It’s like I’ve created my own memory cage.

I thought that with time this would be over but I was so wrong. All that happened with time is that the pain left my body and mind and hovered above me like a cloud, ready to shoot down memories and sorrow with the slightest provocation; like each time I look to my right side on the couch and not find my mother, or each time I visit a restaurant she liked, or drove down a street my father drove me through a thousand times when I was a child, or hug my uncle and feel my father’s shoulders in his. At times it’s simply whenever my car gives me a hard time; that nasty cloud reminds me that I have to deal with it. On my own.

I don’t know what this is. It’s either making my adulthood more difficult to endure or is, by itself, adulthood’s way of forcing me to let go and move on just to survive.

I wrote about losing my mother a few months after she was gone. Nothing about that feeling has changed, but the reason why I find myself writing this now, after almost four years of her death, is that I think the moment has come for me to let go of everything that’s ever pained me. I’m in a phase in my life now where all the memories and the pain and the losses have somehow turned into a roaring fire inside me. I can’t bear it and I can’t put it out, but I think I can turn it into something good, maybe even great. I think that each one of us can turn our agonies into a positive energy that pushes us forward towards a better life for ourselves, or others, whichever we’re best at. For example, I’ve learned all the wisdom my parents have tried to pass down to me in their life but were only met with my casual dismissal. Somehow everything they used to say now makes all the perfect sense. And you know what else? I lost my art teacher so suddenly only a month after he told me he would make an artist out of me. I never quite believed him when he said it and I whined and complained about how damn hard drawing was. I never sharpened my pencils like he advised. Yet somehow, miraculously, my grief over him produced some work that I know he would be very proud of. And yes I’ve learned to sharpen my pencils. I started doing it with some obsessive religious vigor.

Those two ironies opened my eyes to the good that can come out of loss, or perhaps it was my firsthand experience with how real life works. So I realized that if I continue to lock myself up in an empty space loaded with memories, or tried to hold on to a past long gone as if trying to make time stand still, that fire would burn me up and leave nothing but ashes. There’s no putting it out except by embracing it and using it to move forward. Maybe that’s what all the annoying cliché talk about looking at the full side of the glass or finding the good in everything could actually mean. This isn’t about standing in the middle of tears and forcing a ridiculous, unfelt smile; this is about using the bad to create the good, the ugly to create the beautiful. I’ve decided to let the cloud thicken and hover as it may and to turn its shots into bouts of energy. Somehow, ironically, I’ve realized that it can be a very soothing process.

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Dancing, Getting Naked, That’s Nothing!

Hi Keyboard,

Tip tap tick tack clack clack clack… I like the sound you make when I type, but not when others do. Other people’s typing noise annoys me. It tells me that they’re typing away and saying everything while I sit here with a knot in my stomach and a load on my chest. When things crowd up inside it becomes too chaotic to put in words. And the more they pile up the more you feel you’re about to explode.

That’s when music steps in.

I resort back to my traditional treatment. I do it a la 90s Arwa. I turn on the music loud and clear, put on my workout gear, and dance to the beat. I throw myself up in the air and I roll on the floor and I close my eyes and I see nothing. My body takes over and it takes me to places inside my head. One move creates the next and I don’t know which part of the room I’ll be facing after that ambitious twirl.

My cat twitches his ears and sits like Bast staring at me with disdain. Reliable warm lap no longer available. I did want her to get off the couch and chase me around the apartment, but whatever she’s doing now looks stupid and thank God it doesn’t involve me.

How do you kill the social self in you? You see, my social self isn’t the decent smiling hello-how-are-you-today kind. Social self here is the mask I used to put on when I’m with most people I used to know. With every beat their faces flash at me. I wonder what they’d think of me if they saw me. And somehow the thought of them elates me, because finally I’m having an honest moment. I’m being the person within. I took off the mask, shed the layers the years have carefully stitched around my edges since I was 19. Layer after layer after layer of social selves that coexisted together like it was the most natural thing in the world to be all of that and still find your real self at the end of the day as you crawl into bed.

I’m still struggling with words, Keyboard, so give me a chance.

I have so much unfinished words I’ve written that my social selves won’t let me share. And whenever I try to write something new they take me back to my unfinished work and hook me there. They’ve got me by the scruff of the neck.

Wow I’m so rusty! It feels weird sharing this. It’s like doing the dance while everyone is watching.

But if people were to matter then those social selves are not going anywhere. You see, it takes a bit to be able to stand naked to the world. But to my credit, whenever the world’s instilled thoughts became too much for me to handle and began to choke me I’ve tried to shock it with a daring plunge. Some were good decisions and some weren’t. In some I was truly naked and in others I was a new social self only in hiding. But I’ve always taken a plunge approach to change in my life. With time I’ve discovered that those plunges are my reset button. That’s just what I do when things are really, really jammed in my head.

Recently I’ve discovered that that fear of standing naked to the world with nothing on to define you has crippled me all my life. The inevitable social question of “what do you do” had to be filled instantly with something, anything, or it’s death to me. Most people filled it up with answers like “I teach, I write, I make, I sell…” For years now I’ve had no answer to that question. My classic answer was “I used to…” for quite some time until I discovered how sad it was.

Still can’t get naked?

Watch me crawl on the floor now to the sound of those drums and you’ll get your answer.

Of course I can! My naked answer is “Nothing.”

My nothing is filled with so many possibilities that I find it liberating. It’s the closest I can get to the fresh child who believed she could become a figure skater, or the teenager who wanted to run off on a motorcycle with a custom made boyfriend, or the 20 year old who wanted to start a career in film making. It’s the richest I can ever be, because it is mine the way I want it to be. It’s nobody else’s and it’s definitely no longer what someone wants it to be. Behind the nothing that everyone sees – that vain social nothing that shames people – is the fresh, soothing silence of a new beginning.

And I know that I have to do this dance, naked, in front of that same condescending world, to put an eternal shield on my beginning.

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