Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

29187053_10156180201931112_7926518567214177480_n
These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

7008.large
“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

———————————————————————

The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

11kiAqEO3rF0fbtUxmwxjkJ4Mdg
Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

2726399-GOZLIIAQ-7

Egypt’s “McDonaldization”

41490573_328932277871259_4195525368439898112_n
El-Moshir Tantawy Mosque in Cairo. Eloquently encapsulating religion’s meeting with modernity.

Those that waft between places gain the gift of being able to see the changes more clearly than those who are in that place everyday; the incremental changes steering clear from their attention. I want to focus on two points in this post, of things that are, by late 2018, quite prominent and relevant:

  1. China-Egypt Relations

It should be no news to many that China-Egypt relations have been improving and increasing in the past years. Sisi came back from China last week, to discuss the FOCAC cooperation (China-African cooperation). The bilateral partnership is being strengthened by many projects the Chinese fund in Egypt, including creating Chinese language schools in Cairo, the Northwest Suez Economic zone, indeed, the new capital of Egypt is being funded largely by China. From a more macro view, Africa-China economic relations is an increasingly beneficial relationship, with China often funding infrastructure projects in return for resources for their rapidly growing consumption.

Beyond the international relations, political discussion, culturally I have seen very interesting developments in regards to China-Egypt relations. However, the racism prevalent in both countries is both sky-high. As a biracial person with a Chinese mother, I have spent my middle school and high school years in Shanghai, and often return to see my mother. This last time I was there, a couple of weeks ago, I experienced horrible remarks regarding black people that I will not repeat here. In Egypt, I am constantly mistaken for Japanese. A cab driver once translated what he was trying to say (which was objectification) into Japanese and handed me his phone. I stared at the Japanese on his phone before stuttering out “I’m Chinese” in poor Arabic. And so on and so forth.

Political sensitivity, “PC culture” (Political Correctness) is not a luxury developing countries can afford. This is something that I believe developed countries should take into account. It almost seems as though once a country largely pulls itself out of masses of poverty and corruption, they forget the authenticity of humans – it becomes individualistic, the race to make the most money, get the best car, the best house, the most charming spouse, etc., seems to be the entire point of life. Not that I know what the point of life is, nor does anyone else for that matter, but I am as certain as I can be that that is not it.

In these developing countries, people are the most important. Human connection. Having clean water, some shelter, food, and health. In Egypt, bread is literally called “Aesh”, the word for “life”. This isn’t the case in the other Arab countries. Yet, paradoxically, developing countries like Egypt and China also experience higher rates of racism and oblivion to racial ideologies and thoughts. It is yin and yang- there must be a give and take for everything.

At the end of the day, I hope China-Egypt relations will continue to flourish and will not turn sour. I suppose China is Egypt’s new papasito, after Russia and the US. Let’s hope China will be a benevolent papasito.  I saw a few Chinese people walking near me yesterday in Ikea, precisely in the bedroom section (I knew they were Chinese because they were speaking Mandarin), and I thought, ah, they must be struggling with being in a country where they can’t speak the language. This, I’ll admit, was a presumptious thought on my part, because later on I saw them again, and one of them was yelling down the phone in rapid Arabic, with a strong Delta accent. I hope to see more of this, everywhere- one of the positive results of globalisation. Things brings me to my second point of focus.

2. “McDonaldization”

The second point of focus I’ve been pondering upon regarding Egypt today is its “McDonaldization”. Originally coined by sociologist George Ritzer, the term is rather self-explanatory, referring to the rapid spread of McDonaldization globally. However, more deeply, and more importantly, it refers to the homogenisation of cultures due to globalisation. Some would argue it isn’t the homogenisation of cultures, but the Westernisation of cultures. This is a point of contention many argue within academic circles and the public sphere. There has been, up until recently, largely a Westernisation of cultures. However I believe the rapid dispersion of things like China Town, Korea Town, Japan Town, and restaurants of all around the world popping up around the world might be showing a shift to the homogenisation of cultures. It is simply too early to say, although we must be aware of ideological simplifications, such as the clash of civilisations theory, or the theories of the Edward Said-ians (the “West vs the Rest” notion is oversimplified and arguably outdated in today’s post-modern society).

Being in Ikea, I forgot for those two, stressful hours, that I was still in Egypt. Indeed, being in the complex in New Cairo – Festival City Mall – surrounded by fast food restaurants, clothing stores like DeCathlon, Toys R Us, and TGIF (not to mention McDonald’s itself, KFC, Costa coffee, etc) – I could have been in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Shanghai.

If I were driving by in a car, it would just look like any of those cities, just with a few more covered women. Another experience I had that shows this “McDonaldization”, or homogenisation of cultures, or perhaps the intertwining of cultures, was the boy who took care of the camels in Giza, one of which I was riding, and who was wearing a galebeya* with a sports cap – this strange and awkward juxtaposition perfectly captures this sentiment. As more and more of these places pop up, completely derived from any cultural authenticity, perhaps this is creating a new culture – a global culture.

*traditional Egyptian dress wear.

The Pyramids: Built by Aliens?

The first thing many think of when mentioning Egypt is the pyramids. One of the world’s seven wonders, I’ve heard countless stories of how the sheer magnitude of the pyramids shocked people to their core when they first laid eyes on them. However, for me, having grown up in Shanghai- where there are countless splayed 50 story+ buildings, and as someone who grew up moving around and has grown somewhat immune to new sites (relatively speaking), it wasn’t the sheer magnitude of it that had me in awe. It was it’s beauty. It was truly beautiful, and I’m not sure how they built it. It was unique. How on earth did we these structures, some 4000 years ago, and now, in 2018, with self-driving cars, Sophia the robot, Tesla flinging cars into space, China’s wechat’s monopolisation of everything, AI, etc., we cannot figure it out? We now have the tools of the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, and so on and so forth…

40748087_254618348520825_5381166449303748608_n

In this day and age, science is our religion. Those that question, how do we know what we know, are called “flat-earthers”, marginalised and shamed, similar to previous eras whereby doubting God would cause you marginalisation and ostracisation from society, and being name-called “Devil worshipper!”. Of course, the degree to which the marginalisation is drastically different, as no longer burn or drown those that question our systems of beliefs. All the recordings we have found of the beginnings of homo sapiens, has shown that systems of beliefs come and go. There was a time when we believed in the rain and sun gods, there was a time where we believed the sun rotated around the earth, where we believed we were the center of the universe. Today, we believe these to not be true, however our mistake is being arrogant, and most of all, hypocritical, by believing we have found the unshakable Truth. If we can see, through history, through artifacts, through recordings, we would know that we have never found the unshakable Truth with a capital T, but only some form, some distortion of truth. Yet we forget this. Our greatest mistake is we do not learn from our past. Otherwise we would understand science cannot be Truth with a capital T, and to believe otherwise is arrogant. Have we really answered any of the fundamental, real, questions? These are what I believe to be some of those questions…

  • What is consciousness?
  • What are dreams?
  • What is “death” (or as it is more commonly phrased, what happens after death- although this is already assuming there is an “after” death and that death is somehow a definitive phase- which we do not really know)
  • How are we here?
  • Why are we here?
  • Do we have a creator?

And so on…

The evolution of warfare, shows a seemingly incredibly progression in human society. We used to fight each other with sticks and stones –> swords –> guns (evolution of guns) –> tanks –> planes –> drones —> ?

The word progression is key here, because, so what? We have found ways to become more efficient at killing each other.  To communicate with each other quicker through ICTs (information and communication technologies). For me to be able to use this platform to reach out to people I otherwise would not have. But so what? Does it answer any of the fundamental, real, questions? I’ve found more and more that we are merely stuck in our own dimension, on our little blue planet, yet we think this is everything. We need to zone out more often. If we don’t understand consciousness, or how we have self-awareness, we do not even truly know how we built drones. As Nietzsche theorised, we must engage in a mindset that goes beyond good and evil. This is because everything is relative.

If everything is relative, then, the belief that we have progressed is logical if we compare it to where we are before, and our measuring stick is defined by our success now relative to our success before. However, if we see progression as obtaining authentic, true, fundamental understanding of ourselves and the world around us, have we really come so far?

Going back to the pyramids — we do not even truly understand how we built those pyramids thousands of years ago, with many skeptics going so far as to theorise that aliens created them. This is laudable – on the one hand, most constantly proclaim that “we are at the peak of humanity!” acting as if we’ve “almost figured out the secrets of the universe”, yet on the other hand, we do not address the fact that despite paper-less planes, we do not understand how they built pyramids.

40648955_709038212780796_5364805140756824064_n

During my first trip to Cairo, I visited the Pharaonic Village in Giza, Cairo. I highly recommend it to anyone going to Cairo. It is basically a historic park, where they replicated what life looked like “back then.” They replicated a poor man’s house, a working man’s house, and a rich man’s house. They had people working the fields, women kneading doe, as we went down the boat on the stream. I was the only one on that boat, which had loud, almost cringe-worthy (at least for me, a self-proclaimed introvert) touristic music (you know the type). They also had a few small museums, relatively empty, and dark. I was one of the only people in that entire village.* My tourguide was a kind, relatively young man, who, at the end of our tour, spoke to me and urged me to be careful traveling alone as a woman in Cairo. When he showed me how they mummification of ancient Egyptian people’s, including the removal of all internal organs, which would then be tried and then placed in separate jars, and the people still living would leave plenty food, and gifts, for the poor, so that they could have them in the afterlife. I asked him, if they saw that the food never disappeared, and stayed there, why did they keep on believing those in the afterlife could receive it? He laughed a little and didn’t say anything.

*Side-note: this was in 2017, in 2018 the tourism in Egypt is already steadily picking up and will most likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

It was during my visit to the Pharaonic village where I learned of the two main theories on how they were built. It is not just the sheer size that baffles people but also the unique shape of a pyramid does not render it easy to be built. Both theories maintain, first, that it was on the backs of thousands of slaves. The first, they would build square-shaped slabs on top of each other, from widest to smallest, and then build structures on the side to add the limestones to make it in the shape of the pyramid. The second theory, maintains that they built slowly increasing upwards-structures around a center they had first built, dragging limestone up that way. The third maintains that they built one structure on the side, where they’d carry limestone up. Each of these do not explain it very well, or in detail, but I took photos of mini-structures inside the small museums that will most likely do a better job of explaining:

Theory 1:  

Theory 2: 

Theory 3: 

Regarding my personal trip to the pyramids, a female tour-guide I had for the first day took me (I discarded her after that and never used another tour-guide again – personally think it’s much better to do things on your own, own time, free of their wiry ways of taking you to their friend’s stores to make money and their incredibly overpriced charges), and I went on a camel, whose name, apparently, was Bob Marley, and the young man who was taking care of him was called Jahid. Jahid would sleep, eat, and live with the camels. He and Bob obviously had kindled a very close relationship.

40671525_1092221974272327_6707706440573779968_n40641486_506676809805808_7299765964340461568_n

Also, contrary to another popular belief- camels are not slow; he slapped the back of the camel I was on and it galloped forward – I had to hold on for dear life. The reason they are considered slow is because they must work and respect the desert, maintaining their energy. There is no need to be quick, or rash, or hasty, in the desert. So me and Jahid talked, and played music for each other. He had on a sports cap, but a long robe. The greeting of traditional religion and mass consumerism. What a sight. At one point, when he had my phone and was taking a picture of me on Bob the camel, he picked up a large rock, and told me to put up my hands. I was a little alarmed, but I did as he said. This was the result.

40679824_271344980256047_9103225025443397632_n

One cannot speak of the Giza pyramids without speaking of the Great Sphinx of Giza. This was more beautiful, to me, intrinsically. I’m not sure why, it just was.

21768077_10155717583301112_2896397303742090465_n

Similarly to the pyramids, there are many theories as to how the Great Sphinx was built, which I will not go into here. It has suffered much deterioration due to time, however many believe the statue’s nose was shot off by Napoleon’s troops, others believing it was destroyed by Sufi Muslims in a protest.

One can wonder what the Truth with a capital T is.

I write this from Abu Dhabi on my layover flight from Shanghai, where I was writing my MA dissertation and spending time with my mother, to Cairo. How surreal.

يا مسافر (Lone Traveler)

40684685_244975609483436_3271350317324697600_n.jpg

 

During my visits to Egypt, I often visited many of the mosques in Cairo. I am not a Muslim, but I brought along my own headscarf in respect of their religion. After all, do in Rome as the Romans do. This, I’ve found, is really the only mantra one needs to take heed in when visiting a new place. I’d wear dark clothes so as not to be see-through in any way, and would not be showing much skin. However, different mosques have different regulations. The mosque of Amr ibn al-As, for example, the men near the front door wanted me to wear a long-purple robe (a strange assortment to give out to one entering a mosque, I know; I felt like an elf), although I was already wearing a headscarf and black trousers with a black, long-sleeved blouse. Another mosque (I can’t remember which- perhaps Al-Azhar mosque?),  gave me a thick, heavy, brown robe – which I wasn’t too pleased considering the 40C degree heat. The mosque of Muhammad Ali was less strict, allowing me to enter with my own clothes and headscarf. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun was one of the other ones I remember quite well. Each of these three rather well known mosques in Cairo each had their own unique set of design.

Islamic art is dominated by Islamic geometric patterns, which may overlap or form tessellations, as it is often believed in Islam to depict God, the Prophet Muhammad, relatives of Muhammad, and so on – is blasphemous, or to depict anything resembling God, or with a soul, that is, a human or non-human animal is similarly, also blasphemous, although to a lesser degree. This is called Aniconism, which is against the creation of images of sentient beings. This has resulted in geometric patterns dominating Islamic art, as well as half-formed figures such as wings without a body, and the arabesque. This can be seen in the shapes and architectures of the mosques.

20770208_10155597360021112_6182882477878493540_n
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
20729348_10155597360001112_101751761034667853_n
Mosque of Ibn Tulun
40402841_344302152979140_2227742696838004736_n
Mosque Amr Ibn al-As
40493902_311985442684925_5760580905294888960_n
Al Azhar Mosque

 

 

The Egyptian Cafe

For those who don’t know Naguib Mahfouz, he’s often considered the most influential writer of the Arab world, having won a 1988 Nobel Prize in literature and having produced over 30 novels and over 350 short stories. He is, of course, Egyptian. One of the reasons he is so well known is due to how he captures the colours, smells, and the atmosphere of Cairo in many of his novels. My favorites are that depict Cairo very strongly are Khan al-Khalili, Adrift on the Nile, Children of the Alley, Cairo Modern and of course, arguably his most famous work, the Cairo trilogy. 

(to see list of books written by Naguib Mahfouz, see https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/naguib-mahfouz/200620/).

21192914_10155650416896112_4823726417563753049_n

The cafe scene depicted in many of his books is a strong part of Egyptian society. Where one goes to escape the corruption and desperation of nihilistic tendencies, as graduates realise they are unable to  get a decent job or the ones they want without connections, as nationalistic individuals realise their fate has been placed in the wrong hands, or religious zealots lose their faith in God- many of the day to day troubles are forgotten in the smoky, hashish filled, cafes, with little cups of coffee or Egyptian tea (the one with no milk, occasionally mint leaves or sage, and usually many spoonfuls of sugar). Laughter fills the cafes, it is a place where, for a moment, we can truly be in the present.

29186556_10156180201006112_8441288075391031410_n

Throughout the day, one can hear the calls to prayer resounding from the mosques, the أَذَان  (pronounced “adhan”)  in Cairo. Five times a day. Although we don’t really understand what time is, we have, in some way, captured it to some extent- by being able to accurately get on a flight at the right time, meeting a friend at a cafe at said same time, and so on. The calls to prayer are, for me at least, incredibly calming, placing our stake, some sort of hold on reality , despite being infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, some order to the chaos, and that all is good and constant. Here is a beautiful video I found on YouTube that captures that essence, in a call to prayer taken in Giza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo

Particularly in today’s political climate, it’s important to understand Islam before judging it by the media that survive on the deviants and extremes of society. In 2010, the Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowment decided to have a single Islamic call to prayer resound from downtown Cairo, which will then be transmitted through thousands of mosques. This is because it was said before, when each mosque used their own muezzinine, or callers, there was chaos and lack of unity.  Many were unhappy about this change, as often times, change meets resistance, and many cling on to familiarity, confusing familiarity with a stubborn righteousness, perhaps in the attempt to feel we have control over the otherwise chaotic universe.

 

My Heart is in Sinai

Why was I, a nihilistic agnostic, going to Sinai, the land connecting the Middle Eastern world to the continent of Africa; where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments, one of the most significant places amongst the Abrahamic religions? Beyond religiously held importance, it has been a politically strategic area in the Arab-Israeli issue. Connecting Israel and Egypt, the 1957 Suez Crisis, the 1967 June war and the 1973 October War (aka Yom Kippur war) were each fought over the Sinai. Today, it is a place fought over between Islamic extremists and the authoritative entities of its surrounding nation-states. In 2018 the schools in the region were all shut down, due to Egyptian and Israeli authority cooperating (a big feat, considering their recent history) in battling Islamic State, which has control over parts of the Northern territories. However, the South, is considered, overall, to be safe, protected by its tourism and Bedouins.

The “Sinai Trafficking Cycle” is another phenomenon in the Sinai. It refers to the ransom of humans, mainly Eritreans, occur. These Eritreans are fleeing from the Eritrean dictatorship, only to be caught up in a web of corrupt Egyptian, Sudanese and Israeli officials along the borders and within Sinai. Many attempt to reach Israel, however they are instead greeted with things like Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law, which doesn’t protect refugees but merely treats them as social deviants (instilled originally in 1954 under the Prevention to Infiltration Law aimed at Palestinians or nationals from other Arab countries Israel was not allies with). These each, in turn, contribute to this cycle of extortion.

Yet Sinai is more than its political, economic and religious affiliations – it is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I traveled to Dahab (meaning “gold” in Arabic), and Rashidun. These two places were quite different from one another. Our first stop, Dahab, was a brightly little coloured town, where you could smell the salty breeze throughout. Many hippie expats and travelers were there- many scuba divers, and the like. We rented bikes and biked to the edge of the slice of land we were on. There were some Bedouin’s there, who had tents set up, horses grazing by, and would come and offer us tea and other little trinkets. So we settled there, gazing into the mirage of the brilliant sun , the sea, the rocky mountains surrounding us, and let our imaginations carry us away.

At one point, a Bedouin man came and lay near to us, but he wrapped a blanket under him so it ballooned over him in the wind. There he slept peacefully on the sand next to the sea. I could tell he was a Bedouin due to their relaxed manner, the way they work with the land, and their calm, serendipitous expressions.

2B2D61F3-81F8-4845-9661-B0C838A7E09F

Our next stop was Rashidun. This is not a place many tourists or foreigners go to. Indeed, there was only about 30 huts or so, and almost all were empty. A few Bedouin’s that took care of the place would cook us dinner every night. There was one communal bathroom with cold water. We washed our swimsuits and towels in the ocean. I’ll admit, the first night I let my fears get the better of me, promising myself I’d leave the very next morning. However, I slept better than I had for a very long time. Our hut was about 10 meters from the sea, and falling asleep to the sound of the waves that stretched on to the horizon and then fell over the horizon, made me feel comfortably cocooned.

We climbed a jagged rock mountain, with a stray dog who eyed us suspiciously about half-way up and whom we eyed back suspiciously, but alas it did not leap at us nor did it bite us, it was, contrary to my fears, not rabid. The top of the mountain was very rewarding. I’m not sure if a word for this feeling exists in other languages, but in Mandarin and English it does not- the feeling one gets when atop of a mountain, and when looking down on the land and the little ant-like human figures that from below seem like everything; it puts things into perspectives and makes one realise (remember?) our place in the grand scheme of things.

 

Things Are Not What They Seem

The second time I visited Egypt was one week after I had left – that’s how long it was bearable for me to be away. I wanted to find a tabla (Indian drums) for my aunt, who lives in Oxford and loves playing the tabla. I found myself walking along Muhammad Ali Street, chaotic and full of musical shops. Not realising the word for tabla in Arabic was “tabla”, I had the image of a tabla on my phone, which I would gingerly show men* as I walked down the street.

40525803_2029056947384957_676224974209417216_n

Finally, one young boy took my phone, and began to walk away with it, while motioning for me to follow him. Alarmed, I immediately began following him, preparing myself to sprint after him if he decided to bolt with my phone. He brought me to a little shop where there was a round, little old man sitting inside, with a pair of spectacles hanging around his neck, and he was happily talking away in Arabic on the phone. The young boy and I awkwardly waited there (he still had my phone), before the little old man hung up the phone, looked at me with smiling eyes surrounded by wrinkles, and said (in quite good English) to me, “Good Morning!

It was a great feeling to find someone who could speak some English, perhaps the first for a few days. “Good Morning!” I replied back to him happily. Soon enough, he and the young boy had invited me in for tea at least three times. I could no longer refuse. So there I was, sitting in a store with this round little old man whose name I can’t remember, drinking hot tea in little plastic cups with no milk, chatting away happily. He asked me many questions, and had me write my email down on a piece of paper. Ah, the difference between the Instagram, Twitter, and FaceBook dominated first world! At one point I was on the phone talking to his brother who lived in England and his brother’s wife. Finally, he led me to another shop, where they sold tablas, and where I, according to him, got a tabla for supposedly much cheaper the original price.

40571948_276581839626191_5719766509685833728_n

My experiences in Egypt are filled with stories like this. The kinds of stories that only happens in a country free of the burdens of the everyday rush, the 9-5, the commutes, the competition of who-can-make-the-most-money-the-quickest; it is a society where human connection, a conversation over some tea, under the golden haze of the sun that is only quite so golden in Egypt, and عيش (“aish”, the Egyptian Arabic word for “bread”, literally meaning “life”- this is symbolic of their society and views), is everything. It wasn’t long before I had fallen in love with the Egyptian sun, their aesh beladin (Egyptian flatbread) ,طعمية (“ta’ameya”, Egyptian falafel made with fava beans) , and the Egyptian people and society itself.

One of the nights that trip I found myself at a concert of Ghalia Benali, the Tunisian singer who is extremely influential in the Arab world for contemporary Arabic music. It was set inside a huge mosque, with babies, grandparents, families with members of all ages there, spread out across the grass. Some had brought stools. By the time it was the end of the concert, people had stood up on stools to see her better (some brave individuals even stood on the backs of chairs). Everyone clapped to the tune, as, in that moment, we were all connected, through the same vibrations that coursed through our bodies, our hands clapping in the same movements harmoniously.

*Men due to the fact that most of the people on the streets in Egypt are men. There are many factors due to this. As a religious, military state, where women do not enjoy the freedoms such as they may in the US or UK, or other democratic Western countries, the men are often sauntering in the street, gazing at you. This is also due to the destitute state of the economy currently, rendering many bored out of their minds everyday.