The Excitement – and Frustrations – of Being a Beginner Runner

Less than two years ago, my husband gave me one of his old bikes and we joined a group of beginner cyclists for a one-hour

This is a picture of me (in the back in a pink shirt) from last weekend's Parkrun, doing my little running shuffle. That little girl ALWAYS beats me to the finish.

This is a picture of me (in the back in a pink shirt) from last weekend’s Parkrun, doing my little running shuffle. That little girl ALWAYS beats me to the finish.

outing. The cycle started with a small hill. I completely failed to get up it. I broke down mid-hill and threw a tantrum that lasted several hours. I was upset with my husband (who else do I have to blame for life’s miseries?) because I felt he had set me up for failure. The bike I was using was not a nice road bike like everyone else’s. It probably wasn’t even the right size for me. How was I expected to do hills anyway? And we should have started by going off on our own until I had more confidence and strength to join others.

A month later, my husband took me to a beautiful rural area several kilometers away from our house. I cycled there on my brand new, properly fitting road bike. For reasons known only to him, we ended up on some extremely steep (for me) hills. I threw another tantrum. I got off the bike and walked up the steepest hills. My legs were not strong enough to pedal up. It just wasn’t happening. And again, I was angry with my husband for setting me up for failure by taking me to the steepest hills in the country, or so I believed at the time.

Three months later I cycled with my husband from London to Paris in three days.

One year after that I cycled solo 5630 km from Lisbon, Portugal to Tallinn, Estonia.

If not for that whole experience, I would have given up on running by now.  (more…)

Why I Am Gradually Changing the Way I See the World

My husband and I were at a small junction near the north coast of Northern Ireland and had two choices. We could either take the larger, busier road labeled “Coastal Route” or we could turn off onto a small road going up a steep hill. My navigation device showed me that the smaller road would allow us to cycle closer to the sea’s coast. That’s what settled it for us. We took the smaller road.

Immediately we were lurched into a long series of steep, hilly cycling battles. Cycling downhill was almost more challenging than cycling uphill. The downhill gradients were so steep that it felt like the bike might do a somersault and tumble down the rest of the hill. One uphill climb was so steep and so long that I had to stop to catch my breath. Once I was breathing normally again, I discovered it was impossible for me to continue cycling up the hill. When I tried to put both feet on the pedals, I lost balance. I struggled to pull the bike upwards until I found a gradient that would allow me to get back on.

I had cycled on very steep hills before. These reminded me of that time in France, a few months earlier, when my navigation system and me had a little misunderstanding that resulted in a huge detour up a big, steep mountain.

I knew I could do this. I knew I even enjoyed it. There is a very primal sort of satisfaction that I find in putting every single ounce of energy I have into the movement of my legs. It’s an enjoyable pain. That sounds almost masochistic. It’s not.

We cycled up and down, both of us letting out a very loud “Ahhhhhhhhhh!” when we reached the steepest part of a hill, perhaps thus allowing our own voices to push our legs up that last bit. I have no idea how much time passed at first. It could have been five minutes. It could also have been 30 minutes. And then we saw the coast.

I don’t care how many times I have seen coasts. It doesn’t matter how long it has taken me to reach them: weeks, days, or hours. Every single time I reach a coast by the power of my own two legs I am spellbound. It is as if I am seeing it for the very first time. It is an almost childlike sensation of awe. (more…)

What Real Reality TV Might Look Like: My Life in a Month

I tend to watch a lot of crap reality TV. It helps take my mind off more serious issues: like wars and death in the Arab world and whether my children will be safe going to school in Egypt today.

But being the semi-intelligent person I am, I realize that most if not all of what we see on reality television shows is staged in one way or another.

A couple of my friends have mentioned over the past two years that I should have a reality television show of my own. I always reply, “Do you have any idea how boring and commonplace my life is? There would be absolutely no element of entertainment.”

Of course, my life isn’t really boring. Quite to the contrary, if you ask me. I manage to spice things up as often as is possible given my circumstances. Even so, my life, as is anyone else’s, is comprised of a lot of routine interspersed with some excitement.

Last month I had a sudden burst of creative energy. I wanted to do something a bit different. How about I take small videos of random parts of my day for a month and see what that month of my life looked like in retrospect?

So I carried a mini camera with me all month long. It went with me everywhere. Sometimes I’d remember I had it with me and others I wouldn’t. When I would randomly remember I had it I’d take a short video clip of whatever it was I was doing. I kept that up for a full month.

I put together some random four-second clips from the videos I took. I thought of making it move fast-forward or of adding some music to it. But then I decided that the normal speed and the normal noise is what my life is really like. I’m going to leave things just as they are. Normal.

(more…)

The Commonplaceness of Brutal Death

Yesterday morning I woke up to the news of yet another man, a Brit this time, being brutally beheaded by IS militants somewhere in Syria. On the face of it, my reaction was, “Oh my! That is absolutely horrible!” Then I went on with my daily activities. Underneath, however, my mind was in a whirlwind, partially because of my apparent reaction.

Brutal, violent deaths have become so commonplace now in the Middle East. There are so many innocent victims regardless of who is doing the killing. I am someone living in a safe environment who receives this news, feels horrified by it, but is able to continue with my life as normal afterwards. So many people like me are in the same position.

I try to put myself in the shoes of all those people who are under constant threat of a horrific death. I think what it must feel like to believe that my life is so transient, so worthless in the grand scale of things, that beyond a few of my close friends and relatives, the heinous crime that will be enacted against me in the next few minutes will have such an insignificant impact on the rest of the world that the most they will do is utter words of disgust and then they will go on with their lives. (more…)

Can the Ice Bucket Challenge Teach Us Anything About Muslim Extremism?

Like anyone else in the world with a Facebook account, I’ve been bombarded for several days by videos of celebrities doing the ice bucket challenge. The first one I saw was that of Bill Gates. I then slowly began to see videos done by non-celebrities. In the beginning I could not understand what it was all about, even after watching some videos from beginning to end. Why were people throwing cold water on their heads? Why were celebrities doing it? There were no explanations in any of the videos I saw. I then saw a few media reports about the challenge. It was only then that I began to understand that it was somehow linked to a disease called ALS.

 

I Googled ALS and learned it was a degenerative disease of motor neurons that results in its latest stages in full paralysis. Someone eventually posted a video on my Facebook feed of a young man affected by the disease explaining what ALS was, how it affected his life, and what it had done to his mother. He said that people were doing the ice bucket challenge in order to raise awareness about the illness and to raise funds for more research on the disease.

That did not make sense to me. How does a video of a person dumping ice water on their heads create awareness about ALS or get people to donate if no one in those videos mentions the disease, what it is, or how to donate? They also made no mention whatsoever of the fact that they had donated themselves. I was just seeing silly videos of people pouring water on their heads.

And so, as is my nature, I began to get upset.

Instead of sharing the many ice bucket challenges appearing in my feed, I posted the video of the young man affected by the disease. I wrote that this was the kind of thing I would rather be seeing if people really wanted to create awareness. I also posted a video of Sir Patrick Stewart in which he sits in front of an ice bucket writing a check, and once done, takes some ice out of the bucket, puts it into a glass, pours himself a drink, and raises his glass to the camera in a toast. That made sense to me. This was someone whose aim was to show people that this was not about having fun. It was about donating money.

Now watch me link this to the deaths of hundreds of people in Gaza, including women and children, and to the beheading of an American journalist by a Muslim militant extremist. (more…)

Memories of an Adventure and the Gifts It Brings

It has been exactly two months since I returned from my cycling trip across Europe. I remember arriving into Tallinn, my final destination, as if it was yesterday. It was a very rainy day. My husband and I were exhausted. Colin had joined me for the last two weeks of the trip. We spent hours finding a place to stay for the night. I didn’t really have any special sense of accomplishment. Cycling 100 km per day had become a normal everyday thing for me. I just wanted food, a shower, and to get some sleep like I did every night for the past 61 days.

When I finally got home to the UK, my mother-in-law told me I must feel very proud. I didn’t really. I was just happy to be home.

It has taken two months, but it has finally started to settle in.

After the trip, I focused on settling back into my normal home routine. There were days when I struggled, but generally it was an easy and comfortable transition. Now that I am properly settled, my mind has sometimes wandered off, remembering all those days alone on the road. The one thing that really triggers the memories is when I consider getting on my bike for a short ride. I haven’t been on the bike since I got back. I’m finding the thought extremely intimidating. “Cars are dangerous,” I tell myself. “There are lots of hills in this area and you might skid and get hurt,” Little-Man-In-My-Head convinces me. I’ve always been like that. Those thoughts are not new to me. I eventually overcome them to start training for something new. But when I consider that those are my normal thoughts and that nevertheless I managed to cycle myself across the whole of the European continent…well…DAMN! (more…)

My Friends Are My Country

I sit in front of my laptop, sometimes for hours, fidgeting between my blog, Facebook, Twitter, and my e-mail account, looking for any sort of interaction, mainly from people I know, although I’m always more than happy to receive interaction from complete strangers as well.

I really miss my friends. I’ve been away from Egypt since last November. It wasn’t as if I regularly saw my friends while I was in Egypt. But I could if I wanted to. Cairo’s traffic had made getting from my home to any other point in the city a grueling task that I began to avoid at all costs. I was almost turning into a hermit. Me: the woman who cannot be held down by a whole continent.

I miss getting late night phone calls and growling in anger at the inappropriateness of the time but then putting on my happy voice and responding, “Alooo?”

I miss my friends nagging me to go meet them at a coffee shop or at one of their homes. I’d decline, they would nag more, I’d decline again because I was NOT going out in that horrendous traffic, they would insist, and then my resolve would weaken and I would put on my strong face to brave the Cairo traffic. That’s how much my friends mean to me. That is what I would do for them. (It’s A LOT. Have you seen what Cairo’s traffic is like?)

I’ve discovered I’m absolutely horrible at making new friends at this age. I’ve lost the talent. I feel like I would be forcing myself on people so I don’t even try. Everyone already has their close-knit circle of friends at my age anyway.

But it’s not only that. I struggle to find things I have in common with people here. (more…)

The Ethics of Resistance

Strip a people of all freedoms. Take their land, kill their children and their loved ones, control their livelihoods, and prevent free movement. Strip them of their humanity. Occupy them. Deprive them of any form of justice. Do not, by any means, hold their aggressors accountable for their aggressions. Acknowledge the aggressor. Support the aggressor. Celebrate the aggressor. Do this for 66 years.

Then dictate to the occupied people the ethics of resistance.

Better yet, give them a list of the forms of resistance that are not allowed. Label those forms as terrorism. Do not tell them what you might consider to be “acceptable” resistance. Imply that non-violent compliance in the face of the complete annihilation of their civilization is the only form of resistance acceptable.

Tell them they must negotiate with the aggressor. Tell them they must accept all the conditions of their aggressor and cannot make conditions of their own. Tell them their people will not have the right to return but give every person in the world who belongs to the same religion of the aggressor the right to citizenship in the newly formed country.

Go to the movies. Cheer along as Hollywood glorifies American resistance fighters as they combat alien invaders, apes, and sometimes other humans. Then come home, turn on the television, and listen to American commentators and analysts deny the aforementioned occupied peoples, living under the worst conditions known to the human race, their right to resist.

Terrorize anyone who shows support to the occupied people. Label them. Demonize them. Threaten them. Call them terrorists and terrorist supporters.

Let’s you and I, sitting safely in our homes cuddling our children happily in our laps, discuss the ethics of resistance.

And let us not mention, once, the “ethics” of aggression and occupation.

 

I Am the Palestinian Mothers

Some people belong to worlds that are small and limited to themselves, their immediate families, their work, and perhaps a few small social circles.

I almost envy people who have such small worlds.

My world is comprised of myself, my immediate family, my extended family, a small number of best friends, a very large number of friends and social media contacts, and then every man, woman, and child living in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

It is a burdensome world I live in.

Some people are even less fortunate than me. Their worlds are so large that they encompass everyone on planet Earth and beyond. People like that have so much empathy it makes you and me look like unfeeling zombies.

I have been considering all this over the past few days. Why is it that, while I sit safely in my home in the UK, I can feel so down about everything happening in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, and Syria? When bad things happen there, it is as if they are happening to my own family. No. It’s not “as if”. It is happening to my own family.

A few days ago I attempted to start a small creative writing project. I began writing about a woman who finds herself dead in a dark grave. It takes her awhile to gather her thoughts. Her head hurts. She almost immediately starts to think about her children. She lovingly tells us a bit about each one. And slowly it all comes back to her. In one group of paragraphs the woman is Palestinian, killed at home by an Israeli bomb while she gathered her children under her arms to protect them. In another set of paragraphs she is an Iraqi mother whose children watched in horror while she was raped then battered to death. In a third set of paragraphs the woman is a Syrian mother who died on a smuggler’s boat from hunger and sheer despair after having watched two of her younger children quietly pass into oblivion. I never got as far as writing all those paragraphs. I was physically incapable of getting that far. I put myself in the shoes of the first mother, an Egyptian woman not very different from me, who was shot while sitting in her car by thugs wanting the money in her purse. This is something that actually happened to the sister of a former work colleague of mine. I put myself in that mother’s shoes and felt so much anguish that I could not bear to continue to write. I could not possibly write about the other mothers. I would not have been able to hold myself together.

I’ve been wondering what it was in my upbringing that made me feel so close to other Arabs. (more…)

To Drive Is to Learn a Culture: Enter the British Zombies

I will not lie. I thought I knew all there was to know about driving. That is until I started trying to get a British driver’s license.

The dreaded British learners' L-plates.

The dreaded British learners’ L-plates.

I have been driving since the age of 15. That’s 30 years of driving experience. I first learned to drive in the United States. I left the US before I could finally qualify for a driver’s license. But I quickly picked up my driving once I eventually settled in Egypt. At 18, the legal driving age in Egypt, I answered the simple test questions that I was given about signs and I took the 5-minute practical exam, driving around some cones. I passed. Many Egyptians never take that exam. They find someone who knows someone at the police department and get it done automatically; with some money passed under the table, of course.

Since then I have driven in many countries of the world. I have rented cars in the US, Turkey, and many European countries to make transportation easier and more comfortable while on extended holidays. I vividly recall one of the lessons I learned during my driving classes in high school in the US: Follow the speed of other cars on the road. While driving in a foreign country, I have applied this general rule when I am not fully aware of the driving culture in that country. I observe what other drivers do and I imitate them, driving at the general speed of the road and figuring out signs and symbols based on how drivers react to them.

The main part of my 30 years of driving has been in Egypt; Cairo to be more precise. I once explained driving in Cairo to someone by saying, “The main rule of driving in Egypt is knowing that we’re all in this together and we’ll just help each other along the way so that we all eventually arrive at our destination.”

To be honest, that’s not the real main rule. The real main rule is: EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF! Get to your destination using any means possible. There is NO ONE more important than you on that road. Anything you see is simply an obstacle to overcome, go around, or ram into.

The reality is that we have no real rules of driving in Egypt. We have no Egyptian Highway Code that I am aware of. Our driving culture is one of getting onto the road, doing your best to stay on it, and doing your best to get to where you need to get without having too many accidents on the way.

My husband Colin spent a month in Egypt and during that month I tried to teach him the rules of Egyptian driving. (more…)