Archive for May, 2014

The Powerhouse of the Ignorant

Reenactment of Ashoura procession used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment

Reenactment in Ashoura procession used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment

A few days ago a close friend of mine posted a picture of two Muslim women dressed in black wearing the headscarf in a conservative fashion, covering not only the hair and neck but a large part of the chin as well, leading a line of little girls shrouded completely in black, their faces unseen, and their hands were tied together in chains. I normally don’t pay much attention to the many shares my friends post on Facebook because over the past few years I’ve realized that hardly any of the articles or pictures are accurate, but my friend’s horrified comment next to the picture made me want to see what the caption said. I clicked on it and went to its original post. The caption associated with the picture read “Muslim girls being lead off in chains to meet their new husbands.” Looking around within the picture I could see that the women in the background had their hands on their chest in what was clearly a rhythmic beating. I realized that I was looking at a Shiite Ashoura procession. The girls covered in black and chained were performing a reenactment of the aftermath of the battle of Karbala where the granddaughter of the prophet was brought chained to the Caliph in Damascus after her brother had been decapitated. Shiites mark this time of year to be a time of mourning and sadness and recall the heroism of the prophet’s descendants in the face of tyranny.

There were over five thousands likes and thousands of shares. There are over fourteen thousand likes to that picture as I write this and a sea of comments that doesn’t seem to end. Most of the comments are hateful rants towards Muslims and Islam that go all the way to extermination. Some have actually commented that Hitler “started with the wrong religion.” And in between these comments there were those who were trying to show the reality of the picture but they were either being ignored or shunned. The thread had become a powerhouse to the stubborn, angry ones who didn’t want to be told they were ignorant. Comments like “we don’t need to know the truth, this happens anyway” or “it doesn’t matter if the picture isn’t true” received dozens of likes.

Apart from the clear Islamophobia inherent in the post, there was more importantly a brazen show of disrespect to the audience that reminded me too much of the kinds of posts I see everyday about the situation in my country, where suddenly all people ever talk about is politics. There was a clear attempt to stir up emotions, and for the past three years most of the posts I’ve seen about Egypt were of this kind. One would think that ignorance is silent, receiving, acted upon, but I realized that there’s really no sound louder than the sound of ignorance, and no people more confident and outspoken than those who have no idea what they’re talking about.

We’re all ignorant about many things, and in difficult times when feelings are sore it’s hard to remain reserved and not say something, anything, to let the steam out. What we’re usually doing then is just that: letting out steam. We’re not adding anything and we’re definitely not receiving much. In conversations like these no one is even listening; it’s hard to dissociate what we’re receiving – be it a comment or a picture or a piece of news – from our feelings and from our previous related experience, so our reaction is usually marred by whatever that thing we’re receiving has conjured up. Rarely is it merely a reaction with the same size and magnitude of the action itself.

My friends recently bullied a person who was trying to pinpoint a technicality in the Egyptian justice system. She could have been saying something worth paying attention to or she could have been talking gibberish, but she was stating a fact worth looking into first before deciding on the value of her words or even her political allegiance. Yet somehow my friends quickly dubbed her as a voice from the enemy camp and tucked her away into a categorical mental box. She was immediately dragged into the forcefield of the powerhouse. Perhaps they knew her allegiance beforehand and perhaps they didn’t, but there was nothing in what she said, in my opinion, worth conjuring all of that. That is why I use the word “bully” and I mean it in every way. The mere fact that she was not joining in on the wailing automatically placed her in the opposite camp. They started jumping on her words and taking them to further hypothetical ends she never explicitly expressed. Needless to say the conversation got unnecessarily ugly from all sides, and I watched mortified as my friends continued to shoot at that person even though she had withdrawn from the conversation and blocked half of them. I actually considered interfering to her benefit, neither to attack them nor defend her, but rather to show them what their emotions made them do, or to just show them what the conversation looked like to me from the outside, but I thought better. My friends were way too emotional that I knew I would be risking being placed on the enemy camp along with her. I would say that that shouldn’t happen because, after all, they were my friends and they knew me well, but in reality I didn’t think our wounds allowed us to see each other anymore.

Behind the safety of the keyboard there is a liberty many of us aren’t really aware of. It just acts itself out as we clack our emotions away. Some people become passionate lovers and others become dreamy children, but the troubling ones are the sociopaths. I read some of the words in the comments on that picture of the little Shiite girls and I started wondering what the people who wrote those words were like in their actual lives. I looked at their profiles and there was nothing out of the ordinary, yet they seemed to be so ignorant of Muslim culture that they’ve been easily manipulated by fear of the unknown. I couldn’t help comparing them with our situation at home. Some of us show indifference to the suffering of others simply because they happen to come from the wrong side of the political camp. I know some such people personally, and some I know very, very well, and I know that they are nothing but regular individuals leading quiet, ordinary lives. It’s disturbing to wonder how many nice people in our lives hide inside them hating, aggressive, vulgar sociopaths that only come out in the virtual world, but I think the reality is that ignorance of the other has generated unbearable fear, a kind of fear so out of proportion that it can be easily manipulated into anything. Somehow, this fear only finds solace with the fear of others. From behind the screens we, the ignorant, bond and our confidence grows until we’re ready to gang up on anyone who dares to challenge the comfort of our ignorance. We choose to leave our real world and forever live in our powerhouse, and somehow, the scared, the lost, the confused become the confident, the know-it-all, the judgmental.

It scares me to think of what humans are capable of producing in collectivity, and I place myself as no exception. This realization that one is “not alone” is of course comforting, but it can have very dire consequences.

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Inhale and Hold On, Exhale and Let Go

A fragment of my kitchen, or my mind

Wow! I just walked out of my kitchen with some very scary realizations about myself. I’ve had this strong desire to hold time standing still for so long I’m starting to see what my life really looks like inside my head. I’m in one of those gloomy, sorry weeks and I haven’t been clearing anything I use in the kitchen. Coffee mug used? Right where I left it. Next day other coffee mug used? Still there. Tray out? Right where I left it with its corner sticking out the edge of the table. Spoon used? Yes, right next to her sisters in the sink. Day after day with mug after mug and spoon after spoon, and before I’m aware of it I have a disgusting kitchen with piles of ridiculously dismissed items that hadn’t really needed more than a quick rinse to begin with. Now if I try to look for a clean spoon I wouldn’t find one. All would be used.

That is precisely what I do with the life I have outside my kitchen. I hold on to everything, good or bad. Each bad experience, no matter how small or big, comes in, carves something in my gut and sits right there, and I do nothing to clear it. I leave those experiences intact instead of picking them up and working out where they need to be stacked so they could be more useful and less painful. Needless to say, I dig into my brain for one creative thought and can’t find any; all are too busy twirling around old experiences, keeping them alive and simmering.

My kitchen is the perfect visual representation of my mind. And I can’t count the number of times I was advised by close people to let go. Somehow I find this to be the single most challenging uphill task I have to take. Everything around me seems to be screaming at me to get over myself. I see it in that bored look my cat gives me whenever I start to space out and stare emptily at the TV, in the janitor’s snicker when I fuss over the lit cigarettes in front of the elevator, and now it’s crept into my dreams.

Yep, my dreams. Now as I write this the dream I had last night is actually falling into place. I dreamed that my sister and I were waiting for our mother to show up in some mall and she didn’t. I got worried about her but my sister didn’t seem to be as concerned as I was. I checked with my aunt and she didn’t seem concerned either. I was so frustrated that no one was worried, but when I checked with a friend of mine and she seemed to conceal something, I kept pressing her until she walked into a room and came out with my mother. I rushed to her and hugged her, but she didn’t hug me back. Her body was cold, but it wasn’t the kind of cold that works its way through the skin from the weather while the core is still warm; it was that inner, lifeless cold that crept its way out through the skin and to the hand that’s touching it.

My mother was forever gone, and no amount of persistence brought her back to me. I was the only one holding on to something that was no longer there, unlike my sister and my aunt, who had accepted the fact that she was gone and simply let go–or so it seemed in my dream. Holding on to the memory of my mother’s presence in my life has been like taking a deep, satisfying breath of fresh, salty sea air. But because it’s just a memory, the air soon becomes a burden and nothing can relieve me except a powerful exhale. That’s what letting go is like; it’s like a much needed relief of a burden ripping at your chest, and I’ve been living my life with just an inhale.

But seriously now, I’m not sure what this is, to be honest. So before I conclude this particularly pointless post I’m going to go ahead and blame it on Cairo, as I always do with everything that annoys me. So maybe it’s a Cairo thing? Because I look around me at Cairo’s streets and whoa! That is one big grimy, slimy old kitchen that hasn’t been cleared up since the Mamluks. Cairo has layer after layer of history, and on a less romantic note, layer after layer of garbage and abandoned junk either crowding backyards of buildings or creeping into their service stairs, making them nice little hubs for rodents and reptiles. Many people have grown so accustomed to the mess around here that they no longer take notice of it. They’re aware of it, but they just accept it as the sorry reality that is their home city. It creeps into their subconscious and puts them in a bad mood each time they hit the streets, which could explain the road rage and the street fights and the honks. So yeah, Cairo has crept into my subconscious and given me this messy kitchen. And yes of course you’re reading this messy post, because how can I be creative with a mind as overloaded and messy as that kitchen, or as Cairo?

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My Granduncle’s Grudge

Fragment of one of the letters

Fragment of one of the letters

A few days ago I was clearing some old junk in the house and I found a large file with old documents. My father rarely threw away any papers, in fact he used to make dozens of copies of each document he deemed important and put a copy in every drawer and shelf. That way he eliminated the need to search and, of course, he assured quick accessibility in case he ever needed to refer to a certain document for whatever reason. I came across legal documents and slips of old payments made to him or by him, things that dated back to the 1960s and onwards, and in the midst of the piles of paper I found a copy of two letters mailed to us by my granduncle. One letter was for ten pages and the other for five pages and included attachments. Yep. There were legal documents stapled to it, clearly referred to throughout the letter.

The minute I held the letters in my hands flashes of memory came rushing back to me. I remembered myself opening the door and receiving one of those thick, fat envelopes that contained one of the many letters he used to send to us, I remembered the compassionate smile on my father’s face as he read through it (actually in my last memory of such letters my father merely skimmed through the pages), I remembered my grandmother’s face whenever my granduncle was mentioned to her even in passing, and I also remembered that nothing steered her out of a bad mood except a certain anecdote about him which my uncles used every now and then to cheer her up.

My granduncle held a grudge against my father and my uncles for so many years and died before he ever got over it. I never fully understood what the problem was, it had started long before I was born and I grew up merely overhearing conversations about it with repetitive references to certain people – clearly villains – that I had never met and curses to others I knew for something appalling they had apparently said at some unfortunate hour. Near the last years of his life that problem was clearly all he could think about. So he bombarded my father with lengthy phone calls and fortified them with those meticulously detailed, highlighted, subtitled, page numbered and cross-referenced letters.

I held the copy in my hand and studied the handwriting; it was neat but also very shaken. Based on the dates I could tell that he was in his late eighties when he wrote them. That is about a time in which he didn’t always recognize close people, yet he could certainly remember in detail what happened 20 years earlier. I tried to make sense of what I was reading, but since I hadn’t been in on the origin of the problem, the letters, to me, were at an advanced level; there was no way I could understand what he was talking about without sufficient background information. In fact, reading on, I could tell that there was more than one problem, things that had to do with a house, with a cemetery, and lots, lots of conspiracies. There were stories inside stories and there were cows and buffalos involved:

My mother became very ill and she had three requests from me:

1. That I should not bury her in the village but instead bury her in the city with the Gizans [residents of Giza, a suburb of Cairo]. 2. She had a share with in a buffalo with Abo Hammad’s children, that I should give the buffalo to Hamdy [my uncle] because he was a student of medicine and administered her shots. 3. She shared a cow with Haj Hindy, that I should give the cow to my sister Saniya because she was poor … I did what she asked and sold the cow … and gave the buffalo to Hamdy…

I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did when I read that paragraph. To me, the entire letter, despite how organized it was, made absolutely no sense. I knew that there was some well structured logic in there, but no one could possibly decipher it except those who were physically present around the time all those things happened.

What puzzled me, however, was the fact that my father actually got out of his way to make a copy of those letters. What on earth was he thinking? But each time I remember my grandmother laughing at that anecdote I can’t help concluding that the copies were probably intended to travel to my four uncles and three aunts. For discussion, you think? Of course not. Probably just for laughs. I know that he eventually became a major source of entertainment for the family.

My granduncle was a very athletic English teacher who always took pride in the fact that he participated in the 1936 Berlin olympics. He also boasted – sometimes condescendingly – that he was the one who introduced my father to my mother, whom he referred to as a Saudi princess (she was the daughter of a school principal in Medina, but who was checking?)

Sadly, my granduncle’s daughters grew apart from us, but recently we’ve been making efforts to communicate. The only thing that makes me think about him and my father with peace is that my father was right there holding his hand when he was on his deathbed, and that his daughters never stopped checking in on my father during his illness, and that he was elated when he saw them just a few days before he passed away himself.

And this is in spite of what my granduncle had written in one of the two letters classifying major wars, subtitling it “The Longest War”:

The First World War (1914-1918) lasted for four years and was among world countries
The Second World War (1939-1945) lasted for five years and was also among world countries
The Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) lasted for eight years
But the war between the Abdel Fattah family and their cousins began ten years ago and hasn’t ended until now …

As wise and foreseeing as the elderly can be, I’m glad that my granduncle was wrong about that last war he mentioned. Those who remain among us from the old, turbulent days, my cousins and my father’s cousins have nothing but laughter and loving, endearing thoughts about my granduncle, his grudge and of course his letters!

 

 

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