UK

The “little” things that breed terrorists

It’s Eid. Today is the first of three days of celebration following an arduous month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. No food or fluids are ingested between those times.

Muslims love Ramadan. It’s a month of self-discipline, which is difficult. But it’s also traditionally a month when families and friends gather in the evenings around the table to share food. It’s also a month of spirituality, prayers and re-connecting with God.

Muslims love Ramadan, but we’re also happy when Eid arrives and we can get back to our creature comforts and normal daily routines.

During Eid, families get together. Friends stop by for biscuits and tea. Children receive gifts and money in-hand. Fun outings are organized. But before all that is the congregational Eid prayer.

I haven’t been going to mosques for years, with only a few exceptions. (more…)

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Smashing the UK national three-peak challenge

Ever since I was a little girl…

…is NOT where the story of this next grand adventure begins.

In fact, I can think of only one grand adventure of mine (which happened not to be sport or activity related) that originated in my childhood. I’m constantly coming up with new dreams and new ideas for adventures.

This story actually starts here:

I'm not sure which mountain this was taken on. The backgrounds in our pictures on all three summits are almost identical. Let's just say it was bleak.

I’m not sure which mountain this was taken on. The backgrounds in our pictures on all three summits are almost identical. Let’s just say it was bleak.

Ever since about four years ago when I first heard of the UK’s national three-peaks challenge, I’ve wanted to give it a go.

I have no idea who thought of this idea or when. I’m not even going to look it up to tell you about it because to me, that part is irrelevant. The national three-peaks challenge is about hiking up the three highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in a period of 24 hours.

It’s not an official race. There are no official times. There aren’t marshals or registration forms. There’s no one to announce you’ve accomplished the task. There are no certificates at the end or event T-shirts. There isn’t a specific day to do it, although I hear throngs of people choose to do it on June 21, the longest day of the year.

You just go out and do it.

I’ve been nagging my husband ever since I heard of this being “a thing” that we go and do it ourselves. He had already done it twice. He wasn’t enthusiastic in any way to do it a third time. I couldn’t understand why. My husband is huge on physical activities and challenges. But after four years of nagging and an opportune relatively free summer, he obliged.

He put together a team of five. It’s better to have a few people with you because the challenge involves an incredible amount of driving. Only days before our set date, two of the five pulled out, leaving us with a small team of three: me, my husband, and one of his work colleagues who also, it just so happens, was our third team member on our grand cycle from London to Paris in three days only three years ago.

I knew the national three-peaks challenge would be challenging. It wouldn’t be called a challenge otherwise. (more…)

The Contradictions of What It Is to Be an Arab Living Abroad

We have a single word in Arabic for what it is to reside in a country other than one’s own. In English, expatriation might be the word that is used. I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of my non-Arab friends living abroad using “expatriation” to describe their state of being. We hear people refer to expats all the time. But that’s pretty much it in my experience. In Arabic, the word we use is “ghorbah”. If I were to look for a single word in English to translate it to, it would be “estrangement”. We Arabs use this term ALL THE TIME.

Ghorbah implies a state of being away from one’s roots. It’s a negative term that describes the hole that is left in our very hearts when we live away from our home countries. It means we will forever be strangers wherever we are in the world unless we are where we were born. It’s the antithesis of belonging.

I’m not sure what it is. We complain about our home countries incessantly. Let’s be honest, we have a lot that is worthy of complaining. People in our countries talk about moving abroad ALL THE TIME. They want a better life for themselves and their children. They’re sick of the backwardness. They’re fed up with the corruption. They can no longer tolerate the regime. Yet the second we set foot in that other country, we begin complaining about our “ghorbah” or estrangement from home. We start romanticizing everything we left behind. Well, almost everything. And we nitpick at our new countries of residence and detail everything that’s wrong about them.

It must be in the genes. We all do it. Maybe it’s a sickness we take with us from our home countries. Or perhaps we’ve been conditioned into thinking that our countries are the greatest that ever existed even when we’re running away from the very thought of them. (more…)

Cycling 100 miles and 11,000 feet elevation: I did it!

I did it! I cycled 103 miles (166 kilometers) over killer hills with a total elevation gain of 11,000 feet (3353 meters). That’s more than half the height of Kilimajaro (Africa’s highest mountain) in a single day!

An official event picture during one of yesterday's climbs.

An official event picture during one of yesterday’s climbs.

As much as I hate running, I absolutely love cycling. But I don’t love it so much that I’d do as my husband does and cycle to work every day, taking an extra long route for the extra training. Nor do I love it so much that I’d focus all my attention on cycling training; going out, like I see the cycling guys here in the UK do, three days a week with Saturday or Sunday completely set aside for a very long ride. I can’t train for the sake of training. I train so I can do stuff.

That’s why I go to the gym. It’s why I run (sometimes). It’s why I’m now working on my swimming. And it’s why I cycle. I want to be able to do cool stuff and enjoy myself. And the cool stuff I want to do requires training.

That means I’ll probably never excel at any of these things. But I don’t care. Compared to runners, swimmers, and cyclists, my abilities are less than average. I’ve gotten myself up to the level that I can participate in some of the same events they do, but I do them much more slowly. But I don’t give a shit because I can do them too!

Yesterday was such an awesome day. I enjoyed every single bit of it.

The Hoy 100 is a cycling event organized by Evans Cycles in the UK together with Sir Chris Hoy, the most decorated Olympic cyclist of all time. He was there! I saw him! (more…)

The NHS: Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

When you start wondering whether it’s better to be treated in Egypt rather than in the UK, it might be time for the British healthcare system to undergo a revolution.

At the end of last month, a Guardian link appeared in my Facebook feed that immediately touched a nerve. In an article titled “The doctor won’t see you now”, Victoria Coren Mitchell wrote about her difficulties in gaining access to her GP.

As a newcomer to the UK, I have had my own, admittedly different, issues with getting the kind of medical attention I believe I need when I need it. I made a comment to that effect on the Guardian’s Facebook post of Mitchell’s article and was taken aback by some of the responses I received from readers. “You still got time change your mind and go back to where you came from,” was one type of comment. A couple of others told me that GPs knew better than me whether I need a referral to a consultant. My comment was about my complete and utter inability to get a referral from my GPs to see a consultant about a condition I had they were unable to treat.

Although very frustrating for me, the condition I was talking about was a chronic skin condition I have had for years. I had seen several doctors over the years in Egypt, where I’m from, who were also unable to properly diagnose and treat me. My misplaced optimism that I might finally resolve the issue by visiting a British doctor is not the biggest of deals. I’ve had the condition for years. I can continue to live with it if I must. Or the next time I’m in Egypt I can easily schedule an appointment with another top-notch dermatologist and hope I might get somewhere.

I convinced myself that because my condition was not urgent or life threatening, it was all right if it was not treated. I had made three different visits about my condition to three different GPs in my local surgery to no avail. All three refused to refer me to a consultant until I tried their suggested treatment, none of which worked, and I completely gave up going a fourth time. Because of this experience and another, I no longer visit the GP with anything that I think can be delayed or ignored; a dangerous thing for anyone to decide. Despite all this, I still believed that getting access to the right doctors in the UK would not be an issue with more serious conditions.

That is until my British-born-and-bred husband, a Caucasian Scot (according to the comments made to me by some Brits on Facebook, this distinction seems to be important), fell off a horse and broke his collarbone while we were on holiday in Egypt. (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…)

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…)

The Awkwardness of Christmas

When I was a little Muslim girl growing up in Midwest USA, my Egyptian father did everything in his power to segregate us fromChristmas-Tree Christmas. Christmas, we understood, was a religious holiday; someone else’s religious holiday.

I managed to get away with some things. At school I engaged in the arts & crafts activities of Christmas. Everyone at home appreciated the clove-covered apples wrapped in shiny ribbon that made a room smell nice. My father would not allow me to take part in Christmas plays or even watch them for that matter. But I did find myself humming along to Oh Holy Night and The Little Drummer Boy during music class. I couldn’t help it. They were catchy tunes. Those songs were overtly religious and were frowned upon by my father, as opposed to Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein Deer that were both allowed. (more…)

Hello. My Name Is Nadia. And to You I Am a Nobody.

Cairo has a population exceeding 18 million. EIGHTEEN MILLION. Yet every single time I leave the house I manage to bump into someone I know. I mean this in the most literal sense.

My work has taken me all over the world. As a journalist, I always set up interviews before I even set foot out of my country. I have attended conferences in many parts of the world and I have spoken at many. Every time there are people who know me and people whom I know at these events.

When I look back at my life, I realize it has taken me years and years of networking to get to this stage. It started when I was in university. I was part of the Muslim Brotherhood back then; a very large international community. I also had all my fellow students and friends who later went out into the world to work as medical doctors. I eventually started a career in journalism. I had colleagues at work and their families as friends, journalists around the world who wrote for me, and international journalism projects I became involved in. I knew people. Lots of them.

Yesterday I realized how blessed I have been and how much hard work that took. (more…)

London to Paris Cycle 2013

Part I: The Training

When my husband first told me that he was thinking of getting a few guys from the office together to cycle from London to Paris, my

Andrew, Colin, and Nadia after three days of cycling from London to Paris. We made it!

Andrew, Colin, and Nadia after three days of cycling from London to Paris. We made it!

first thought was, “Who does crazy stuff like that?” The words that came out of my mouth were, “Can I join?”

I hardly had any experience cycling but that was not going to hold me back. I bought a cheap mountain bike in Egypt just before I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2009. I cycled a few times in Cairo as part of my training for the climb. That training consisted of leisurely cycling on flat road for no longer than half an hour at a time. I did not think it was leisurely then, of course. I now know what real training means. (more…)