Posts Tagged travel
Unlived Lives, Unanswered What Ifs
Posted by Arwa Salah Mahmoud in Thoughts & Vents on April 28, 2014
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.
Posted by Arwa Salah Mahmoud in Travels on March 31, 2014
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.
The Kingdom and I: My Plight With Saudi Arabia
Posted by Arwa Salah Mahmoud in Travels on March 24, 2014
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?