Archive for April, 2014

Unlived Lives, Unanswered What Ifs

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.

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Oh Those Leaping Frogs!

“When I’m idle, my mind tends to stray and to turn little worries into issues of international importance.”

That’s what my best friend wrote yesterday on her blog. She has taken her bike and started a solo two month journey across Europe and I think about her everyday. She now has a problem with her bike and can’t find anyone to fix it until she’s on the road again, so she realized that she has no choice but to take a chance and hope for the best, hope that the bike will hold until she’s reached her destination or managed somehow to find a place that can help her with it. That is no easy exercise for her but, like I said, she has no other choice.

It’s the need to get going and continue, that constant dynamic movement that pushes us forward, whether literal towards a certain destination or metaphorical towards a dream in our lives, that makes it hard to think of too many options. It narrows everything down to the need to keep going with the hope that things will figure themselves out later. That’s what focusing is all about. It forces us to take the first choice we have, and we realize that if we don’t take it, we’d be forever caught in an abyss of blurry possibilities that don’t really have all the answers. Like she said in her blogpost, it’s the idleness that turns little thoughts and concerns into larger issues.

That is precisely my problem. Except that they don’t only turn into “issues of international importance,” they turn into melodramatic, scifi, crime and horror scenarios and they drive away my sleep.

I’ve always had this problem, but recently it’s been so powerful it’s turned into full anxiety fits that led me to finally admit that I have a condition. Once a thought or fear hits me it doesn’t matter how many people I’m with or how much fun I’m having. I lose the ability to interact and I’m suddenly surrounded by an invisible dome of doom that lands on top of me with a loud thump, encapsulating me in its walls. I stop hearing anything outside my head. I don’t even see anything I’m looking at.

I’ve had this condition for over a year now, and I’ve had it over the most trivial things and the not so trivial things. Generally it has taught me that no amount of thinking, anticipating, or fearing anything can solve potential trouble, because things – either problems or their solutions – can come to you from the least expected direction. Systematic planning beforehand and doing things the right way should suffice, because really, none of the little frogs that leap around in my brain are in any way legitimate concerns that can actually shield me from problems if I were to pay attention to them. I need to teach myself to just do what I gotta do and move on, just like my friend did this morning. She’s on the road right now as I write this and I really pray things turn out OK for her. I know they will, because she decided to handle this the right way.

The amusing part is what happens in the long run after you’ve been subjecting yourself to these frogs for long. I feel that the universe begins to mock me, because there’s no better way of reminding me that I have no control over everything except with humor. Here’s an example: Recently I decided to go on a trip near the red sea and take my cat. I’m staying in a nice place with a little garden and I know that my cat loves the outdoors. I always obsess whenever he’s not confined within the safety of his home that something might strike him; a snake, a dog, another cat, a car. Yet I let him out into the open anyway because I know how much he loves it and he was so happy, sniffing one tree and rubbing himself in the sand under another. Then guess where the danger comes from? The sky. Two crows decided to hover above him like they just found a feast. So I grabbed him as fast as I could and went inside.

Crows.

I’ve been worried too much from things on the ground I didn’t see danger coming from the sky. I found myself spending a good part of my trip – both me and my niece – researching and discussing the mysterious life of crows, how intelligent they are and why they would wanna take a bash at a poor cat that only wants to rub itself in sand and chase flies. The conversation for a good part of the trip has, of course, been mostly about crows. I definitely never thought crows would grab my attention at any point in my life, let alone take my horrified imagination to terrifying scenes of two crows grabbing my kitty by the collar and flying away with him while I scream and run hysterically after them to no avail when suddenly, to my ultimate terror, they drop him to the lagoon when they realize he’s too heavy and my voice chokes while I swim and swim and fail to save him. My mind started racing with thoughts on what to do. Take away his collar is something I actually considered.

Apart from that, there’s also the mush my brain becomes from all the over leaping the frogs do. Here’s another embarrassing example: Because my cat is old, I find myself watching him very closely for any signs of health problems. Two days ago while I was clearing his litter I reassured myself that his feces is a beautiful shade of brown. “Beautiful.” I actually said that my cat’s poop is a “beautiful” brown. Oh the things I catch myself saying in my head! And by the way I’m clearly not a doctor, so I have no way of knowing what shade of brown exactly should a cat’s poop be for me to call it beautiful (not that a sane doctor would say “beautiful as opposed to, say, “healthy”?) I have no knowledge and no means to apply that knowledge. I just have little frogs that leap around in my head.

And yes of course, I have been idle. I haven’t been working for the past four years and I’ve been spending too much time on my own. It’s no surprise that I turn into this.

I walked out of the bathroom thinking, wow how would a normal person react? I’d say the first thing they’d say is thank God she has no children. There’s a reason for everything and this definitely is it. I couldn’t possibly bring up a human into this world if I were to go in after they’re done with their business and check out the color of their stuff in the toilet.

So I clearly need to snap out of this. I need to be a normal person again that assigns just the right amount of concern or emotion to each problem. Actually I need to be a person that knows how to identify an actual problem as opposed to a minute earth vibration caused by a frog’s happy landing after a not so welcome leap.

 

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The Art of Showing Up

I have nothing to write. I’ve been rolling ideas around in my head and my thoughts are just fragmented and kind of shy. They skitter away the minute I pay attention and try to figure out where they might take me. They don’t seem to want to take me anywhere. Just teasers.

I sat for an hour and a half with my coach yesterday spilling lots of things at her I don’t think she expected for the session, and I love how somehow she managed to get all the weird little parts together and set me a very challenging assignment. She said, everyday you pick one victim and spill one quirky thing about yourself to them. That way, she said, you can shut your saboteur up and kill that ego that’s been standing in your way for so long. I accepted the challenge and started wondering who that could be, and surprisingly some opportunities did present themselves. I got an unexpected phone call from an old friend in Qatar, but the conversation was way too sober for me to suddenly do that. Or maybe once again, my ego took over like it always does.

I could actually finish the entire assignment of the week in this one blog post and spill it out to the world at once, but it wouldn’t be too well constructed. I’d be taking you from bad energy and evil spirits to mysterious scents and a little unseen lump in my knee that I think is bone cancer. Why would you wanna go there? Or why would I take you there and risk my image as a sane, composed person?

Before that session began I thought to myself I had nothing to say to her. I wasn’t doing anything in the direction she was taking me. It was a very distracted week. But I decided that I was going to show up anyway and say whatever the hell comes to my mind. Just as I’m doing now.

We get so many moments in our lives where motivation goes down to a little below zero. You stop and start wondering what the point is. You’ve been doing this for so long over and over and nothing ever happens. But I realized that things don’t happen suddenly, they tiptoe in one tiny step at a time you have to step back and see the larger picture to realize they’re here. They also don’t happen because of how well we do things or whether or not we’re able to perfect our performance. They happen because of our persistence. On some workouts I move with the speed of pregnant turtle. My body feels so heavy, so goddamn heavy I look and feel clumsy and I get driven to tears in the middle of the workout but I don’t stop. OK sometimes I do, but it becomes a very dark day so I try to avoid that. I just realized that I have to start letting go of my obsessive desire to do things right, or even ever reaching my goal. I lower my expectations and I persist. Doing things out of habit always makes me feel grateful that I showed up, because I feel better at the end of the session of whatever it was I was supposed to be doing.

So here I am challenging my ego and the evil annoying editor looking behind my shoulder and snickering as I write this. I don’t even know why I called this an “art.” Actually I do, I couldn’t think of any other word. Maybe it is an art although now it just hit me. It’s more of a struggle, really. The Struggle of Showing Up? Nah. “Art” is prettier.

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Rwanda Slaps Me in the Face and Grins

Two nights ago I watched a video posted by a friend on Facebook of three little Arab girls with solemn faces, cloaked in black, sitting stiffly on a couch and singing about the length of a girl’s skirt as protection from the eyes of young men, her careful, slow walk as the best cover of her body, and her hijab as the “ideal” crown on her head. The three young expressionless faces chanted on how happy that girl was that she’d covered her ‘awrah, her nakedness, her intimate parts, her whatever you may call it. There’s no actual word for it in English.

The following morning I woke up with bloated fingers, puffy eyes and half a brain (from pizza, not the video), browsed with one hand and held my coffee in the other when suddenly National Geographic informed me that, twenty years on after the genocide, women in Rwanda now have majority seats in the parliament, and that in fact by achieving that in 2008 Rwanda was the first country ever.

Now the expressionless face was mine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy and inspired that Rwanda is quickly getting up on its feet and seems to most definitely be on the right track. It’s just that the dichotomy hit me a bit hard since I clearly hadn’t had enough time to recover from that traumatic video of the night before.

This is not a post typically making unfounded comparisons or misinformed bla bla bla. It’s also not an attack on Islamic dress code as I don’t see the Islam that I know anywhere in that abusive video (and it would take a lot more space than this post for me to explain why). This is just a passing rant of a person once described by a close friend that she’d chosen to stay aboard a sinking ship.

I don’t know much about Rwanda, this article could be showing a very narrow side of things. It could be, of course, but it’s there and it can’t be based on nothing. There’s an Egyptian proverb that says “There’s no smoke without fire,” so surely this article must be based on something? How about the fact that women hold a majority of seats in the parliament?

According to National Geographic, that percentage of women is very small given that the majority live in rural areas with limited or no education. But that small percentage made it to the parliament, dammit! So those people have got to be doing something right.

And that’s Rwanda. You know what Rwanda was to a lot of Egyptians especially during the horrible days of the genocide? As much as there was widespread sympathy over what they were going through there was also racist jokes over the contamination of the Nile because of the dumping of the bodies in thousands. You see, we’re known among the Arab world to joke our troubles away and we’re known to be the most hilarious nation with unbeatable jokes, but that multitude of jokes also has an excess of ill-tasted, sometimes sick, punchlines that come out more as insults than innocent entertainment.

‘Cause that’s what we do. We slouch around in our own filth and love ourselves so much we think no nation can ever be greater and point fingers at other countries’ mishaps.

Rwanda is a proud example that a weak, recovering state does not have to be inefficient if it is smart. Because of its inability to penetrate it has empowered the local communities. Rwanda has something called “community-policing committees” which is a group of people empowered to help maintain law and order in their respective communities. Those people are actually trained by the police to prevent crimes and protect women and children from violence.

Our state is neither weak nor recovering. I’m going to forget about all the big words and just put it in couch and popcorn language. Our state has the force of a hurricane and it doesn’t hesitate to use it when angered. It’s also lazy, old, quite grumpy, and stupid. So in the early days of the January 25th uprising it acted “wounded” and “upset” and disappeared off the streets after driving over people and shooting a bunch of others in the chest and the head. It left us to fend for ourselves, so the closest we got to those police committees was of our own efforts. Residents of all neighborhoods created their own guarding units and took shifts protecting streets and property and even directing traffic.

As for the women, our notorious streets harassment record actually skyrocketed, so another version of these committees was created and continues to operate, a purely grassroots initiative to spot and prevent street harassment of women, either by helping the victim file a case against the aggressors or just shooing the fellows out of the way after giving them a good tongue lashing. Our problem, however, is that once these committees have caught the transgressors there’s a very fragile system to take them to in order to effectuate already existing anti-harassment laws. The overriding culture that it is essentially the woman’s fault clouds many of the officers’ judgment, and the woman often finds herself presented with narrow options and threatened to tarnish her own reputation if she wishes to proceed with the case. So our individual efforts to create a sense of security, accountability, and just simply some sanity in the public space go almost completely unsupported by the state.

And just like the rest of the Arab world, the misogynistic, hormone injected view of women continues to thrive and even gets passed on to generations as I have seen in the video, ruining every woman’s sense of self-worth as a human being before it even begins.

What is it about Rwanda that makes it so on the right track compared to Egypt? The country was reduced to ashes and yet somehow, miraculously, most of those in charge seem to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Or does it take a climactic, post-apocalyptic form of destruction like the one Rwanda witnessed for people to come back to their senses and start doing the right thing instead of wasting precious time loving themselves and hating each other? What is that force that keeps dragging us into this dung filled pit? What’s our secret, really?

 

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