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.