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.
There was nowhere the cat could go but under the sofa. This was tremendous progress in its character. The pool man’s pole was so high and creepy thin the cat was convinced it was going to get it. It had been lying down on its favorite chair when the giant pole began to rise and dip itself into the mysteries of the blue water. It was a lot of restraint for the cat not to rush inside and to wait it out under a nearby sofa. And that amazing feat of courage paid off. The pole monster didn’t go much farther; it soon retreated. And the cat, forty-five minutes later, began to relax again, and the fur on its arched back and tail began to lay back in place, reverting the cat to its original size.
The cat had intellect and it was using it. The balance between instinct and intellect in its little head got the upper hand. Danger subsided. All was alright.
She’d been dreaming of this all her life. Since the age of sixteen she decided that she wanted to learn Italian. Because she was not the one paying for the lessons, her father insisted that she learned Spanish instead, said he would only pay for Spanish, and Spanish it was. She enjoyed it nevertheless but it didn’t seem to satisfy the thirst for linguistic music inside her head. In her mind she could speak and understand every word. She could read it well. When she was old enough to pay for her own Italian classes she couldn’t keep them up. She allowed work and politics and “faithful sisters” to define her life’s purpose. Suddenly, rallying for bearded men who spoke shiny words became more important to her than speaking Italian. And she let the years go by.
Then one day she woke up from her slumber and decided it was time to get her life back. What was that language she so wanted to speak? She thought with a smile in her head. The moment finally came for her final stretch with it. She sat in front of the teacher, dumbfounded. Words were racing each other inside her head but none of them were the ones she wanted to use. Everything came up to her throat and choked in there while her teacher looked at her with a compassionate smile. The silence was murderous. But she would not let it kill her dream. She was listening to Italian, the teacher was promising her Italian, and all was alright.
She was in white, standing in a crowd of eager women from different parts of the world. There was a wall separating them from a destination they had traveled thousands of miles to reach. It was now only a few short steps away once the door opens through that wall. The talking and the chattering echoed in the vastness of the mosque. White marble pillars stood eternally around them, cloaked in gold carvings, perfumed with Oud – the time old Arabian incense. The coolness of the powerful air conditioners and the lingering scent of Oud elevated her. The crowd was suddenly a part of the divine experience. All those women, barred from his blessed presence by the misogynistic sheikhs that have come to take his place despite their false claims to be his humble followers. All those women, standing patiently, waiting for the male ego to subside so that they could be with him at last, and tell him how the men have broken their promise to him to treat them well.
Then all at once the door opened and the women flooded into the forbidden quarters of the grand mosque. Joy filled them as some of them began to ululate, allowing their instinct to challenge the sin-minded conservatism of the men around them. Tears began to stream down her face as she rushed towards the shrine of the prophet. She walked into the sunlit platform where she used to chase the pigeons when she was only seven as her mother sat quietly in a corner and prayed. Back then women were allowed this proximity to the prophet at all times. Back then the entire mosque was her playground. She kept walking, enjoying the sound of the pigeons’ fluttering wings, stepping once again into her childhood, until she finally reached him. She stood there with a smile on her face, and all was alright.
She stared longingly at the wedding cake. She had been to a wedding in that hotel before and she knew how well they made those cakes. Most people she knew were chocolate cravers, she never was. Chocolate always came in handy to her on difficult times, but she was never a chocolate seeker. To her, the whiter the cake the stronger the lure, and if frosting was included her mouth would fill with saliva no matter what important event she was in. The wedding was coming to an end and she was worried they might forget to cut up the cake for the guests. Soon everyone began to leave and her heart began to sink when suddenly, her aunt came to her with a piece of the cake. She grinned and held it like an archaeologist would hold an ancient treasure. She took the first bite and peace drifted into her veins. And the world disappeared. And all was alright.
This day one year ago I was whining and complaining once again over the detailed drapery I was supposed to draw tied in the background to a bottle and a jar.
“Sharpen your pencil! I keep asking you to sharpen your pencil.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did. You saw me.”
“That’s not sharpening your pencil. Let me show you how.”
And he took my pencil and knife and sharpened it to a needlepoint, then he made me get off the chair and began to set an outline for the shadows and the curves that were evident in the drapery. He pointed to details I could barely notice. Thus began my first lesson in the most important prerequisite for art: patience. There was no chance for a good drawing with a real life looking outcome except with precision, and precision comes with patience.
He then walked away from my easel and left me to what was my third or fourth attempt as I silently cussed and cursed until it was time for me to leave. I was more or less satisfied with the result. The guy was right, I never sharpened my pencils. Before I left I decided to show him what I managed to accomplish and looked for him in the studio. I could overhear him talking to someone from his private room so I decided he was too busy. No big deal, I thought, I’ll see him again in two days and then I can show it to him.
Only he never got to see it again, and I never got to hear his voice again. A few hours later after I walked out of my last class with him, Saleh, that assertive, fiery, funny artist who walked into my life and shook it vigorously died of a heart attack at the age of 37. That bolt of lightening that used to show up suddenly behind my shoulder whenever my lines began to shake and dwindle out of frustration, was snuffed out as easily as a candle.
Before I met Saleh I had a liking for art, but as much as I used to enjoy drawing as a child my attempts never went too far beyond what they were; an eight year-old’s drawings. In the last few years, however, my liking turned into a passion, and I was always the type that needed to get physically busy, I needed to be able to express myself with something that was other than words, because sometimes emotions can run so sore it’s hard to find the right words to express them, or sometimes silence can be your best cry. Drawing can deliver emotions of love, anger, and serenity with the strokes of a pencil, and that was what I hoped to achieve but never dared to express for lack of confidence. So when I first walked into Saleh’s studio and looked around at the paintings and drawings I stood in awe as I stared at a detailed pencil drawing he told me was at entry level. “Could I possibly draw like that just by the end of the course? I can’t imagine,” I said with my eyes popping out with wonder. “Yes you could,” he replied, “and you will. You’ll see.” He said it with so much confidence that I felt a little puzzled and, to be honest, motivated.
Saleh was actually glad that I had no proper background except for my childhood drawings. Students of this kind are so much easier to teach, he said. It’s always easier for a beginner to learn new techniques than it is for an established artist to change to new ones. Art is always very subjective and affected by the person who delivers it to you, but a good messenger would take you bit by bit, hand in hand, until you’re strong enough to stand on your own and go on alone, developing your own approach and technique. That’s the kind of messenger Saleh was.
There’s not a day that goes by whenever I think of my drawing that I don’t see Saleh and remember the sound of his oud as he played for us in the background while we struggled with the shadow outlines–that incredible technique that, to me, is the whole difference between a real life picture and a drawing that is just a drawing; one that borders subjects with actual lines. Sometimes his dog, Picasso, would wiggle his tail and sit at his feet whenever he reached for his oud and begin to sing along each time Saleh began to play. His favorite song was Zorooni (visit me), a famous old sad Egyptian song lamenting loneliness: “visit me once a year, do not forget me.”
Little did I know then that I would be visiting Saleh every moment of every second I’m holding a pencil and staring at a blank page.
I recently went through my old morning pages and found that I had written this three days after Saleh had died:
Third morning I wake up with him gone. The emptiness surrounding me and the lump in my chest grows bigger everyday. I’m still left hanging from a cliff, his hands are no longer holding me up, I’m holding on to nothing but a thin rope we were supposed to strengthen together. Now it’s just me, my grip, and the rest of my body and soul in the air. Just what am I supposed to do now? I feel lost and helpless, but I can almost hear him say “Hold on with a stronger grip, pull yourself up and you’ll get there, and I’ll be there. You’ll find me when you try. I’ll always be there.”
After Saleh’s death, and at the very moment I walked into his empty studio to finish the drawing, met the grief-stricken eyes of his assistants and took his lonely, confused dog into my arms I resolved to turn my grief into art. There was no better way to honor his memory. So I set my easel and looked at that drapery that used to give me so much pain with much more determination. I could feel him looking over my shoulder as I did my layering with the perfectly sharpened pencil he had prepared to show me, and I began to draw with my tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. Luckily there was no one else to watch me except Picasso, who sat huddled in a corner with his eyes over me until he fell asleep. From that day on I decided to turn his loss into a positive energy that simmers within and brings out the best that it can.
When my drapery was done I left out the background where the outline he had done for me to illustrate his technique was on the side. A small, unintentional gift that I will continue to cherish.
And from that day on I didn’t put my pencil down. I had found that unspoken language I could use whenever words were nothing but a fuel for war. In a time when Egypt was even more turbulent in the summer of 2013 people were becoming more and more polarized as I felt more and more alienated from everyone. My only refuge was the art that Saleh taught me, so I grabbed my pencils and tried to draw some more on my own. I decided to draw my cat, and since there was no way I could keep him still I had to copy from pictures. Later I decided to draw Saleh himself. It was a rather ambitious project for me, he hadn’t gotten to a point where he explained human skin and how to depict it. I put every bit of emotion I felt for his memory out there, and I know that if it hadn’t been for this, the madness that was happening around me and the unsettling words that came to me from the social media would have killed me. I could see Egypt on the verge of a civil war and I had never felt more frightened. My friends may not have realized it, but without uttering a single word I let my passion bare itself for the world to see, and miraculously I was able to pull everyone together to agree at least on one thing: my work. It was a chance for me to remember the important things, and I thought perhaps it was a way to remind my friends to cherish the people they love every second, because life is very, very short.
For that reason and for countless others I thank Saleh. He may or may not know it, but I do visit him everyday.
The streets are happy. The TV shows are happy. Fireworks never stop in my street. We have a new president. No one wants to hear any words of truth right now. Those who wish to speak of anything that is not remotely euphoric are considered party poopers. I keep my mouth shut as I have had it for the past two years. There’s a war going on inside me, but I’ve learned over time to live with it. I’m tired and drained of sharp argumentation. I’ve learned to marginalize my feelings and my sentiment and enjoy the day, but sometimes I fail to ignore a piece of news or a little article and the feeling overtakes me once more.
Now it’s all over me because I just finished reading an article by Ahdaf Soueif titled “Let Them Rejoice” that goes on to list the young people who are held captive in prison without visitation or even lawyer rights. All fine, energetic, well educated young people. Some were picked randomly and some have a history of activism. All from the age group that constitutes the majority of the population. All are the kind of people that a rising nation would anchor itself to if it entertained any hope for a better future.
There is nothing I can do about any of this except sit and take it. So I’ll take you with me and show you how I deal with this. We’re flying to other places and we’re talking about other things. We’re talking about art. I’ve never studied art, but I have an ignorant man’s drooling passion for it that I find myself drawn to museums and galleries like a magnet.
Let me take you to the sunlit hallways of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This beautiful old building that was originally a private property holds a treasure of the Renaissance art that always mesmerizes me. I remember last year when I went there with my family. We had one day to spend in Florence and we tried to compact the entire city in a few hours. By the time we were at the gallery it was going to close in minutes. We created our own tour and decided on the particular works we absolutely had to see and began our mission, racing from one work to another until it was time for the reason why we got in in the first place. There shone down on us Sandro Boticelli’s Primavera, spring, that beautiful, colorful, almost sparkling painting bursting with life, symbolizing love and, to me, hope.
Venus stands in the middle of the picture, yet the face that draws me is that of Flora, the goddess of flowers, who stands on the right. The serenity in her face and the soft, subtle smile inspire me. That’s the mental state I wish I could stay in all the time. Yes. All the time, no matter who says what and no matter who kills whom. I want to keep that face and I want to keep that inner peace that comes with it. Some people do that no matter what goes on around them. They give flowers. They blow me away and make me feel ungrateful.
Anyway, back to my journey.
How about London? I could sure use a nice cup of coffee while I take in the beautiful June breeze of Trafalgar Square, then eagerly fly up the gigantic stairs of the National Gallery and walk in silence and contentment as I let the refreshing scent of old wood awaken my senses and tickle my brain. Unlike the freaked out visit to the Uffizi (which I intend to go back to with more time on my hands), I was blessed with countless visits to the Gallery. Over there I’m a dreamy wanderer floating from one painting to the next. Sometimes a certain one grabs my attention and I stand still before it, sit down if I can, and stare at it for as long as it takes. A particular one that captivated me was eighteenth century Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. There stood a hunched, old woman reaching to a young woman’s face, while Father Time sat pointing at the face. The painting is very large, large enough to be a mural. So the first time I saw it I sat back and looked into it for a very long time to take in the lighting, the drapery, and the detailed feathers of Father Time’s wings. But in reality I think that it was the idea itself that grabbed me the most; the thought of time and what it can take away from you. Looking back, it wasn’t about the fear of getting old as much as it was about the things we lose over time; all those people and moments we take for granted.
Apart from Primavera, I seem to have an unusual taste in paintings; ones that have a sense of anguish and loss usually draw me. That’s something I wasn’t aware of until a friend of mine pointed it out to me on our visit to the Louvre as I wandered everywhere trying to show her that painting I saw on my first visit with my father when I was only sixteen. It was a painting of a screaming mother whose baby was snatched from her breast by a lion. I didn’t know the title of the painting and I didn’t know who had painted it, but the mother’s expression had stayed in my head for 24 years. I found the painting with a miracle. It was also from the eighteenth century, painted by Nicolas-André Monsiau and titled Le Lion de Florence, the lion of Florence. I could not understand how a human hand could depict emotion so truthfully, how it could – with a paint of a brush – create sound and send chills down your spine. This is the beauty of art.
And it’s the very transcendence of European art that grips a person like me, coming from another part of the world and living in a faraway future, and matches her silent cries with a flash of light stemming from a painting or a pair of eyes that draw me into the souls behind them. During my visit to the Louvre, when my friend gave me her observation of my taste, I was a little drawn into myself, I didn’t know if it was true that I went after such paintings. It was too soon for me to accept that, but then my feet were suddenly stapled to the ground before a nineteenth century painting by Paul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre, The Young Martyr. It depicted a beautiful dead young woman with tied hands, floating in dark water against a dark background, but her face was lit by a halo that was brilliantly reflected in the ripples. If you look closely in the dark background you see a silhouette of a man on a horse about to run off. I’ve read some interpretations that the silhouette was a symbol of moving on, of letting go, and hoping for a better future. To me, though, it was like a fragment of an ongoing war that resulted in the death of this young beauty. The focus on her in the painting told me that she was what mattered the most, she was the only thing at stake, and yet she was lost and the battle continued, indifferent to her loss, and the water carried her further away, out of the sight of the man on the horse, but further into the center of the picture, making her forever the most important, irretrievable loss.
Just like the young men and women in my country who dared to dream for their homeland. Some gave their lives, and some are losing it slowly behind bars, and the battle wages among us, making us lose focus and sight of what really is at stake.
So this is what I do when the ugliness begins to choke me. I travel with my brain to beautiful places and recall the memories I have of them. Yet somehow I always find myself coming back, seeing everything with the lens of the anguish and sorrow that I feel. Albeit with a deeper perspective that shows me that my feelings are universal. Art delivered the hands of the masters over time and across continents to me, to pat my shoulders and tell me that I’m not alone.
When I used to work I used to stare uncomprehendingly at colleagues who used to complain to their bosses that they wished the day had an extra 24 hours so they could accomplish everything. It made me feel weird because I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with the 24 hours God gave us. Reflecting on this years later in think I figured out my own humble answer. Sometimes recognizing the importance of time comes when your life stands still. It’s true that busy people running all over the place half the time wish for extra hours within the day to get everything done and to have time to rest. They’re always baffled at how fast time flies before they’re aware of it, but they spend it so busy with what they’re supposed to be doing that in reality they’re not actually conscious of the time, and that is why it slips. I think that the best way to truly grasp the significance of time is not by losing it or having it slip through your fingers as you race to compact all your chores and obligations, it’s by standing still and looking at it, observing it.
I never thought time could be so long, and I never thought it could go so slowly, but it does specifically when you’re conscious of it. You’re never fully aware of how long 30 seconds can be until you actually wait for them to pass. This whole talk and writing of time feeling like it stood still or feeling like it’s dragging its still, heavy legs isn’t coming out of nowhere. But I don’t mean it here except in the most positive sense. There is a reason why 24 hours are about as long as a day is, because 24 hours is already an awful lot and there is so much that can be accomplished in it. Take it from a jobless, childless, manless woman like me. I have no reason to be running around pleasing anyone while juggling that with a career I’m so desperate to keep. My time is mine and that is why I’m so aware of how precious and rich it actually is.
When divided by intervals of 30 seconds it becomes clearer. To some people 30 seconds is a small, uncounted part in a more precious 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and to others even an hour. But in my life 30 seconds are in many ways an eternity. 30 seconds is how long it takes for my milk to heat up in the microwave while I stare longingly at my coffee waiting for it to run through my veins and bring me back to life. 30 seconds used to be the hour of torture when my trainer first introduced me to planks and showed me what it would be like for your muscles to squeeze the breath out of you. Now it is the unending eternity of Hell when I battle with gravity and do those complicated push ups that require some bizarre knee on top of elbow action while bouncing from all fours. 30 seconds is more than enough for a silent response to a question to become awkward. It is also just enough for your entire tense, anxious body to loosen up and relax once you take a conscious decision to take a deep breath, close your eyes AND meditate. 30 seconds is that final, breathless push to the summit point on a mountain, that moment when you see it but don’t believe you’ve actually made it until you touch that sign that tells you you’re there. It’s the difference between your sense of desperation and sense of accomplishment, between the crash and the hope.
That is the only answer I can think of for why there aren’t 24 more hours in the 24 hour day, because it’s all right there, you just need to look at it and appreciate it to realize that it can give you a lot more than what you actually take from it.
Divided into a series of 30 seconds, I can live and laugh and cry and grow old in just a day.