Sunday, May 4, 2014

On mourning and Loving

Bassem Sabry—one  of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers, political analysts, and revolutionaries died a few days ago. I didn’t know him personally—nor did I even know of him before his passing. He was a friend of many of my friends though;  they shared his writings, tweets, and Facebook statuses. Their reaction to the news of his sudden death was all heart-breaking.
I found myself weeping, as it is common especially when someone so young and idealistic dies. Part of the sadness of course is that death reminds us of the loved ones we lost—and the loved ones we are petrified of losing.
And then the most curious thing happened, as more and more people starting gushing over how much they loved and adored and worshipped him. I found myself getting angry. Yes, angry! It’s not my place to judge whether Bassem felt that he was so loved when he was still amongst us because I didn’t know him, but I am old enough, cynical enough, and jaded enough to realize that love is the least expressed emotion among us humans.
When someone dies there’s always a prevailing sentiment of “sorry, I never told you all I wanted to say.” When someone dies, people realize how truly awesome and wonderful that person was. When someone dies, people mourn the passing of loved ones that they never really let them know how much they meant for them in the first place.
We almost always go through life unappreciative of the people who mean the most to us—until they are gone. And this makes me angry! Parents and kids, lovers and friends—we take them for granted for some reason, as if they’ll always be there, as if we’ll always be there. Although we know damn well this is not true.
Mourning brings about sadness but people like to do it—because  mourning is a safe type of loving. Loving the dead is easy. It doesn’t make you vulnerable, you can idealize them as much as you want, and makes you feel like a “good, grateful, sensitive” person. But does it matter? Well, you may honor them by talking about their legacy which is, of course, nice. But does it matter? To them? To the people you loved?
Loving the living is hard. They can hurt you, disagree with you, and most problematically, want things from you. The dead, on the other hand, are a content and don’t ask us for much.
What struck me most about Bassem is not his wit or eloquence—it is how loving he was. He was sending people “just because” messages and tweets to cheer them up, make them feel loved and appreciated. There aren’t many people in our corner of the world so giving of themselves. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have him as a friend, but I am fortunate enough to still have wonderful people in my life whom I am taking for granted but shouldn’t.
I think part of honoring his legacy is to spread the love. To love the living, and recognize that mourning is not the only kind of love there is.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Gay Men Jailed in Egypt: Everyone's Shame

Four men were sentenced to eight years in jail for engaging in "deviant" homosexual acts. These
men were reported by none other than their neighbours. Egyptian newspapers said that the neighbours called the Police because many "feminine-looking" men were frequenting an apartment rented by one of them.

 The Egyptian police searched the apartment and found make-up and female "garments", which apparently is evidence enough for them to arrest the guys and was proof enough for the court later to sentence them for eight years in jail!

There's also another interesting line in the article describing the arrest. The reporter stated that the neighbours "almost finished them off", but the police officers took them swiftly away.

Now, I have been living for the past fifteen years in Egypt and there is one thing I'm sure of about the Egyptian police: they are not a friendly, responsive bunch.

I called the Police on my neighbours on two separate occasions in the past fifteen years. The first was because my next door neighbours were holding a wedding in their own backyard and they were firing celebratory shots in the air scaring my week-old baby to tears every time. The police officer I talked to hung up on me.

The second time was to report a domestic dispute-- the screams of a woman being brutally beaten and the loud roaring insults of an abusive husband. This time the police responder asked if I heard any gunshots and when I said no, he also hung up!

So why oh why does the police--and the courts--care about people's sexual behavior behind closed doors, on private property? We can throw in religion as the easy answer, but I believe the rot runs much deeper. All in all, people in Egypt are not as religious as they'd like to pretend they are. They let a LOT of things go--just so long as it does not threaten their patriarchal society.

Patriarchy-friendly Causes: Bring'em On
Activists in my corner of the world are so predictable, they rarely surprise me anymore. The pick and choose their causes on a whim.

There are two sets of causes: those that threaten patriarchy and those that can be made patriarchy-friendly. For instance, when it comes to women's rights, sexual harassment is a patriarchy-friendly cause. After all, it has to do with "honor." It's a cause that readily gathers supporters and mobilizes activists. Whereas something like Female Gential Mutilation finds much more apathy and down-right resistance--being labeled as "not important now" or "not a priority."

And here allow me to describe a new Syndrome, authentically Egyptian, and proudly adopted by many post-revolutionary revolutionists: the Not-A-Priority-Now Syndrome. Its symptoms are easy to spot and the underlying aetiology is clear: causes that threaten societal hierarchy and patriarchal norms.

Some of the regular victims of this syndrome are: Bah'is who want their religion acknowledged in official papers, Christians who want churches built, Nubian minorities who are seeking long-ignored right, women who want laws to protect them from margination, atheists who are arrested and thrown in jail for their beliefs or lack thereof.

But of course, the ultimate sufferers are the guys with alternative lifestyles--the homosexuals, the gays, the black sheep of  a beaten-down male-dominated society. No one shall stand for them. No one will utter even a cry of dismay. Because, well, they are "feminine" males. They are guys who are being "done to" instead of being the ones doing the "doing."

This is why our revolution is failing us, because the revolution of the mind is far from being completed. When rights, for ALL, are considered worth fighting for, then we can talk about living the dream we've been fantasizing about since the ouster of Mubarak in 2011.

One of my favorite all time quotes about the Egyptian revolution is a quote by the visionary Mona El-Tahawy. She says that our political revolutions will fail, unless we have social and sexual revolutions that push them into the home. I wholeheartedly agree and I think that the sooner Egyptian activists realize this, the sooner they can wash away the shame of their silence and their turning away from the very ideals they promote.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Helping Loved Ones Grieve

This is another post about death, loss, and grieving—albeit a lot less personal and more practical than yesterday’s article. I feel the need to address grief counselling because, simply put, we have seen so much death in Egypt the past few years. Mental health services in Egypt are not designed to handle issues of a subtle nature such as a grief. 

Family, friends, and even most qualified professionals resort to religious rhetoric assuring the grieving that “we all meet at the other end of the rainbow someday”.  No one takes into account the fact that bringing religion into the mix, in and of itself, is rarely solace and in many cases can be a source of anxiety to the grieving person. 

“She was such an angel,” a grieving friend of mine had told me about his mom. “I’m sure she’s going to Heaven—but being as bad as I have been in my life, I’m not sure I’ll ever meet her again.” He’d said that half-jokingly, but his eyes spoke of his true angst. 
If focusing on the afterlife when talking to the bereaved is a big no no then what can we do? Here I’d like to present a poignant quote from John Welshons’ book Awakening From Grief:Finding The Way Back to Joy
“Our job is to be a presence, rather than a savior. 
A companion, rather than a leader. 
A friend, rather than a teacher.”

We are not trying to find magical solutions to offer the grieving—for all we all know too well there is none. But by being present, day in and day out, we help them work through grief and come out whole and functional on the other end. 

Working Through Grief

One of the general models that grief counsellors use is aptly named the TEAR model. Each letter stands for a task the bereaved needs to complete. 

I.To accept the reality of the loss: a phase of “denial” may set in and be longer than one would initially imagine. Funeral rituals are essentially humanity’s way of coming to terms that the person is departed and only their body is left behind. Ghossel, or the “Washing” in Islam for instance is of a special significance. On a more personal note, I had not fully accepted the reality of my grandfather’s passing except when I saw his lifeless body draped in white.  
II.Experience The pain of the loss: This may seem counterintuitive, but it is essential. Experiencing the pain sets the stage for it to go away. By being present, by lending a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, we can help our loved ones work through their pain. 
III.Adjust to the new environment without the lost person: This adjustment may be needed on more than just the obvious physical level of the changed reality. There is also an emotional adjustment, a void that might have been left by the departed. 
IV.Reinvest in the new reality and learning how to embark on a new life while finding a meaningful connection with the deceased. This is not about forgetting but rather about living without them yet still honoring their life and the memories they shared together. 

Marriage and Grief 

I was reading a short story, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri and she tells of a young woman, Ruma, still grappling with the loss of her mother. I found it fascinating that Jhumpa addressed the effects this can have on a marriage.  

“She could not explain what had happened to her marriage after her mother’s death. For the first time since they’d met…she felt a wall between them, simply because he had not experienced what she had, because both his parents were still living in the   house in Lincoln.”

I think Ms Lahiri got the alienation spot on—but was a tad off on the explanation. What most likely happens when the female partner loses a parent is that her husband, unable to watch her suffer, withdraws at least partially. Many men are not able to be present enough for their grieving women. They seek distractions quickly and leave the woman to her pain. Although this is neither intentional nor a conscious decision, the rift it creates maybe very difficult to overcome. So my advice to a man with a grieving partner is, be fully present, be fully there. Be there longer than you think is necessary. Hug her tighter than ever. Don’t let your own discomfort with tears stop you from wiping her tears away. Don’t let the job fall to someone else, or a wall may be erect between you that stands to damage the relationship over time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Grief and Loss

2013 has not been a kind year to me. It claimed the two people who taught me most about love and compassion in my childhood. In January, I lost the man who raised me; and in December, I lost Auntie Anne, the lady who ignited my love for English and the only person who ever read me bedtime stories as a child. After her death, her daughters, my uncle, and I found solace in each other’s company. But my grandfather’s death, now that was a different story. 
The post I'm sharing today was written after I came back from his burial, in fragments, on tattered sheets of paper. Everytime I sit down to write, this unshared piece casts its shadows over me and almost paralyses me. I want it to stop lurking in the shadows and therefore I’m setting it free. Out in the open. As a final step in my grieving process. Today, one year and one month and eight days after his death, I still miss him and always will. So here it goes... 

Friday, January 25th, 2013 

This morning, we took our last ride together—my surrogate daddy and I. I rode with him to his grave. He was “sitting” in the back. And he never liked to sit in the back. It made me cry. 
He was a pilot and a chief and always in charge. He didn’t like to sit in the back. Ever since I was three years old, I was his second in command. 
Car rides were a quintessential parts of our lives. For years, he drove me everywhere—mostly against my wishes—but the fun part was tagging along for the errands and the family visits and the road trips. 
Whenever I asked for his permission to learn how to drive, he used to tell me, “you’re my co-pilot! You learn by watching.” 
He died last night, without ever officially promoting me.
If I say that I am overwhelmed with grief it’d be just another cliché, and an understatement. I am not overwhelmed, I am drowning in sorrow, literally choking on my own tears. 

The longing to hear his laugh echo through in the car tore my heart apart. He was the most joyful person in the family. We lost happiness when we lost him. 

We rode together, him in a box in and me in black, both silent yet connecting. The’d rapped him up in white cloth and his face was covered—for eternity. I am never again to see his smile, never. I am never again to hear him laugh. This is somehow a fact that I have to live with for the rest of my life.  

I, the unwanted child of parents who got married way too early, was welcomed into the world only by him, the only parent I ever knew. 
My grandfather and Amira, my grandmother. 

He was only 41 when I was born, young enough to be my father himself. He who’d lost his wife, my grandmother Amira whom I was named after, at the young age of twenty three and never remarried. He was a fountain of love, kindness and tenderness—even when he was tough. And he is no longer here. 

I am in physical pain. My stomach is tied up into countless knots; my heart is beating its way out of chest; and my lungs are constricted, compressed as if to refuse filling up with air. 
“El bakaa lillah” is one of traditional Egyptian/Arabic condolences formula. It roughly translates to “Only God is eternal/everlasting.” 
The trouble is, it made me furious! Every time someone said that to me I wanted to scream in their face. 

Yes, I know we are all mortal but how does that help me?  Why does no one care about my feelings, my pain, my grief? Why can’t anyone just simply wrap their arms around me, hug me tight and let me cry? This is all I need. A chance to mourn. To feel. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Egypt's Descent into Chaos

I have been trying to write about Egypt, but couldn't. The pain, the confusion, the conflicted feelings deepen when I write--and that sometimes makes it impossible to do so. 
But I decided today that the only way out is through. I decided that I will face my demons and say it like it is. 
Rabaa Massacre: PhotoCredit: Wael Abbas FB
The sign is a "Happy Eid" sign that literally translates to "May you be well every year"
Irony at its finest

Nothing is harder now in Egypt than being human, maintaing sanity and saying the truth: that no one knows the truth! 

No one knows precisely what happened in Rabaa' Square on August 14 2013--except perhaps the bloody generals that ordered the massacre. 
Freedom Mask-
Courtsey of General Sissi
by @Ganzeer

What is undeniable is the outcome of the massacre: more than 600 people killed. Granted, the sit-in had Jihadists and armed thugs in it. But the majority were just regular people who believe that Morsi should not have been overthrown by the Egyptian military. I guess now is that time for a disclaimer: I am not writing an exposé about the events that went down since June 30. This is merely my opinion, as a human being seeking enlightenment and longing for peace. 

In the past few days, I've watched Egypt descend into chaos. Pro-military Junta asking their leader El Sissi to "finish off the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathisers". While the Islamists declare Jihad and their readiness for martyrdom. What is utterly ridiculous is that both sides use verses from the Quran supporting their arguments. Both parties attack those who do not side with them and both parties want to see us dead--or at the very least locked up. 

Longing for peace in Egypt now is a heinous crime. Any one who dares speak against bloodshed is called a "traitor", sometimes even by their own family!  Any one asking for Rule of Law in Egypt is being called an "Idealist" and a dreamer. Even by Beatles-loving elite who sing to the tunes of the peace-loving John Lennon's "Imagine"!

Any one who dares oppose police and army officers shooting people on the streets are shunned from public life. Any one who dares blame the police and the military for not protecting churches and enforcing laws is mocked, ridiculed, ostracised  and will be soon arrested and tortured--mark my words. 

No one wants to face the truth. 

The circle of violence can only in bloodshed end. 

You think you are big and bad because you condone the killing of civilians on the streets,and you call me a "wuss" for wanting to put an end to the rivers of blood. 

But the truth is you will regret your blood thirst. When the chaos sweeps someone you know, respect or love, you will regret it. When Egypt becomes a blood bath and no one feels safe, you will regret it. When civil war eats away at the country, you will wish you would've listened to us--the dreamers. The voice of reason. 

P.S. لو عايز تقرا حاجه بالعربى لإنسان عاقل و محترم أنصحك تروح مدونة أحمد زكى

Thursday, January 3, 2013

How To Change the World

Happy new year dear readers. And yes I am back, but this time with a slightly different oulook on things. Politics has drained me.

In fact, talks of politics and religion have drained a whole country. All Egyptians suffer now. I walk down the street and I can sense the change--that twinkle, that glimmer of hope that we witnessed all across Egypt after the Uprising of 2011 is now, officially, extinct. 

Religious extremism, poverty, and corruption existed back in 2011, as they do now. But what had changed since the early days of the revolution was people's heartfelt belief that a change is possible. The hope in people's hearts gave them resilience and it empowered them. Everyone believed that what they do matters, and that they have the power to change their world. 

The fanatics are like the angry mob in the illustration, yelling "$KULL&BONES!#$&@." 
Don't fear them. 
They are puppets. Their insecurities pull their strings. 
Don't shout back at them. You can't win at the game of ugliness. Instead, show them love. Show them happiness. Show them fullfillment. Show them gratitude. Show them all the things they miss out on by being who they are. And slowly, one by one, you will convert them. 

Stand in the Face of Fanatics and Change the World One Heart at a Time

You may be skeptical but have faith, I have witnessed such "conversions" myself. Inside every human being is the need for connection, and the yearning for transcendence. They may not show it--or know it for that matter--but it is there. 
Just lead and show them the way. This is how to change the world, by touching one heart at a time. 
P.S Thank you  Robin Möller  my colleague in the RMT institute for sharing this inspiring comic strip. 

P.S. I tracked down the artist behind this brilliant comic strip, it's Nathaneal Lark. You could catch more of his artwork at NLarkArt

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Egypt...Is Freedom in the Air?

We will be free. 
Were you taught by English teachers that Freedom is an abstract noun?

Were you taught by science professors that the air can not taste sweet?

Were you taught by acoustic teachers that the chants of the masses can not chime in sync?

Well... you were taught wrong. 

Freedom fills in the air in Tahrir square again, our square, Liberation square. The air is sweet and the chants are heavenly melodious. 

Our hearts flutter with the hopes of freedom yet again. Once more we, Egyptians, will naïvely try to overthrow dictatorship. I don't care whether we succeed or not. It's just that twenty years from now I want to be remembered among the ones who fought, among the ones who stood in the face of the tyrants, among the ones who refused to bow, among the ones who said to Islamists we are NOT afraid of your guns and your merciless hateful laws, among the ones who said to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood we are not afraid of you and your "clan."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sultan Morsi the First

Sultan Morsi I

Hear Ye… Hear Ye…
By decree of his royal Sultan-ness, Morsi the First, Egypt has been declared a no-man’s land. Strike that. Egypt has been declared a no-woman’s land– and a bigot’s haven. Egypt under Morsi’ s reign is tumbling back into the dark ages and Egyptians are about to witness, first-hand, the innumerable pleasures of living and thriving under extremist, fascist, totalitarian rulers.

We have been offered a glimpse of the coming attractions of the years to follow. Between releasing convicted terrorists with innocent blood on their hands and hopping around Cairo giving religious sermons and address the nation exclusively from a mosque, Mr. President has really shown where his allegiances lie.

Actually, he has shown us more than that in his mere 82 days in power. He has shown us that an Egyptian president, no the only Egyptian president who has been “democratically” elected, can declare himself Sultan with little to no consequences at all. Not even one teeny tiny demonstration or reminder that the “revolution goes on.”

When did he declare himself Sultan? Oh, you missed it? I’m not surprised.
It was cleverly done and stealthily executed. Indeed, the work of a master mind (perhaps the “Architect”?) Morsi has declared himself beyond reproach. He is, after all, the Muslim scholar leading the Umma in prayer.

His royal Sultan-ness doesn’t tolerate jokes. He will send you straight to jail–or to Hell if that can be helped–for them.

He wants his subjects serious and worthy of his infinite wisdom and his invincible cunning.

You gotta give the guy a break though, he is traumatized by the amount of ridicule he was subjected to during his presidential race: his nickname was “Morsi El- Istebin” which literally translates to “Morsi the Spare Tire” but is meant as “Morsi the Second Best,” referring to his status as being El-Shater’ s (the Architect) replacement.  El-Shater is the Muslim Brotherhood’s main man, but his criminal record and a delayed pardon stood between him and the presidential. The Egyptian people had a few laughs at this, but still elected Morsi anyway.

But now, nobody’s laughing. Demonstrations have been outlawed and Egyptians continue to be oppressed and imprisoned for their beliefs. There are whispers in the streets that child marriage will be legalized, that the already-oppressed minorities will be no longer welcome, that the marginalized will be further pushed into destitute by his royal Sultan-ness’ capitalist plans.

The trouble is that his royal Sultan-ness is just getting warmed up…  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Egypt... Get Thee a Queen!

Watching the Queen's Diamond Jubilee has inspired me with the perfect solution for the political conundrum Egyptians have found themselves into. The solution is so simple, so brilliant, and so elegant that I'm surprised that none of the activists on the ground have thought of it.

Egypt needs not elect a president, since doing so seems to be so darn hard. Egypt needs to get itself a queen!

I'm not a royalist--last I checked anyway--but I see this as the ultimate solution for the leader-worshipping Egyptians out there who, unfortunately, form the majority of the voting pool. Most people are looking for something much more than a president. They are looking for a savior and a leader that will lead Egypt from the darkness to light. They want him strong, invincible, and all-powerfully capable of vaporizing his enemies should they ever dare to exist. They want someone they can adore and even God-ify.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia 
If you seek proof to such claims, look no further than the mysterious case of Hazem Abu Ismail. The charismatic sweet-talking Santa Claus figure who ran for presidency, gathered supporters, and spent millions of Pounds on electorial posters and banners despite knowing that his running for presidency inspite of his mother's American Nationality is in direct violation of the Egyptian Constitutional declaration which bans citizens with dual-national parents from running for presidency.  His supporters went crazy over him, many of them even to the point of pledging their life to him and threatening armed conflict if ever asks them for their support.

Hamdeen Worshipers 
Another, even more mysterious case, is  Hamdeen Sabahy, one of the leaders of the "old" (i.e.pre-revolution) opposition parties who had no popularity whatsoever and then , suddenly and mysteriously, rose to the spotlight. Now all you could hear is Hamdeen this , Hamdeen that. His worshippers liken him to his role-model, the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, who squandered Egypt's wealth on silly wars and died leaving a huge chunk of Egypt occupied, but is still, for some odd reason, worshipped by the masses.

Adore this Sucka!! 

Worshipping masses... listen up!

I hate to burst your bubble but... there is no savior, there is no deliverer, there is no champion! YOU are the champions.  Conscience  is the champion. No one person is ever the answer. The answer is a system. A system that is not self-righteous, but just. A system that can hold those in power accountable for the failings and mistakes. A system where no one in executive position is above the law.

But since Pharaoh worshipping has been sort of our "thing" since the dawn of time, then by all means, elect a cardboard queen... One you can admire, adore, and glorify all you want but let her hold no royal prerogative.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Does God Exist?

Does God exist?

You might think it strange, or philosophical, or even blasphemous—this question that all of us have whispered to ourselves one day, if only in the back of our heads close to where our subconscious lies. Does God exist?

I do have an answer—but my answer is deeply personal, deeply mine. Will it quench your thirst? I don’t know but I will share it. Maybe you’ll see some truth in. Maybe you’ll find in it something that is not in books of scriptures. And maybe it’ll reach a secret part of your soul—the part the affirmations of scholars could never find.

A while back a close friend of mine asked me, “Does God exist?”  I looked at him and smiled wondering I should fall in this trap.

In Egypt, you are not allowed to ask such questions, although everyone does— but dares not admit it.

And in Canada, to ask that question was to invite an unwelcome rhetoric of evolutionary and scientific talk that is grounded in the here and now and nothing beyond.

But my answer, my deep personal answer, is not as glamorous or as thorough as the eloquent rhetoric you would get from either camp. So I hesitated, not wanting to sound like a sentimental fool. But the look of genuine openness in my friend’s eyes compelled me, almost begged me, to answer.

“Yes, he does.” I said as casually as I could. “I am sure he does.”

“Why?” He said with a sigh expecting a lecture on how everything is by design and how the stunningly accurate engineering marvels of the universe points at the existence of an intelligent deity.

He was about to be disappointed.

“Because I feel him in my heart. I know he exists. And if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.” My friend was dumbfounded. My answer was not clever, was not witty, was not eloquent, but it was true. It was my answer as I have come to develop it over the years.

There were far too many dark corners in my life…far too many calamities…far too many disappointments to navigate on my own. If it weren’t for God’s grace, I would not have made it.

I remember that when I was a child, alone in my bed at night, I’d cry and cry and cry for hours on end. Nothing would stop the pain and the tears…except the knowledge, the peace I found inside my heart because God is here. God hears me. And God one day will take me home.

I was unloved as a child; abandoned by parents that didn’t want me. A mother who can’t give love because she has never known it herself and a father who equated parental responsibility solely with financial support. It was in God’s love that I found peace and hope.

Maybe you are persuaded to tell me that it was a little girl’s illusion. That God was nothing but a Santa Claus figure or a Fairy Godmother who kept a miserable kid hopeful.

I tell you that this little kid could not—would not—have made it through the dark times if God did not exist. He manifested himself to me, not just in my heart, but also in all the people who loved, protected, and nurtured me along the way. He protected me from my rashness and my naivety and  my self-destructive urge. He solved problems I never know could be solved. He worked out messes I saw no way out of. And in my bleakest darkest hour, it is my faith in him that was the glimmer of hope burning that kept me going.

This is how I know God exists.

And you... how do you answer people who ask you "Does God exist?"