When a Culture Makes Information the Enemy

When I began my career as a journalist, working as a science editor at an online media organization that unfortunately no longer exists, I fantasized about becoming a war correspondent. I wanted to go into war zones and cover the truth about conflict. My naïve view was that all I needed was to be savvy about staying out of the line of fire. And I’ve always figured I’m pretty savvy. People at war, I wrongly thought, don’t target the people communicating the truth about a conflict they are involved in. It’s in their best interests for the truth to get out. Or so I naively believed.

It wasn’t until the middle of Egypt’s 2011 revolution when I experienced first hand and witnessed the targeting of journalists. My personal experience was fortunately very limited: a thug pounced on me and broke my video camera while filming the renowned Battle of the Camels, when men on camelback raided Tahrir Square.

But since then, I have become acutely aware that journalists are constantly targeted in my region and by people from my region. Journalists covering Israeli insurgencies in Gaza have been targeted and killed by the Israelis. Journalists covering the situation in Egypt are killed and jailed by the state for doing their jobs. Journalists covering the situation in Iraq and Syria are kidnapped and then brutally beheaded by IS militants.

And today, 12 people working at French satirist magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were killed by masked gunmen apparently saying God is Great.

Targeting journalists is not, obviously, something only people of Arab or Islamic origins do. It is incredibly frightening to me as an Arab Muslim, though, to see this happening in significant numbers in my region and by people from my region and religion.

I can’t help but see that much of this stems from a culture of enmity towards knowledge and information. (more…)

Looking Forward to a Year that Begins With Spring

In my head, my year begins with spring. I always feel surprised when I notice friends suddenly talking

One of many wonderful memories from the spring of 2014.

One of many wonderful memories from the spring of 2014.

about the end of one year and the start of another as the end of December nears.

It makes me feel rushed. “But wait!” someone inside my head remarks. “I’m not done yet! There’s still more to come!”

Spring is where everything starts for me. I organize my years from spring to spring. Springtime is when I try to go on an adventure because it’s usually the best time of the year for that sort of thing. Spring comes, I go on a wonderful adventure, come home, wind down, have a fabulous summer with my children, start wondering what I should do next year, and then I start training for it through the winter months until springtime and my next great adventure arrives.

Right now I’m smack in the middle of my winter training regime. In the spring of 2014 I went on a properly grand adventure. I cycled for two months across Europe almost completely on my own. It was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my whole life. It would be great if I had the money and the time to be able to commit to that sort of an adventure every year. But I don’t. So my current big plan for the spring of 2015 is to try to run a marathon. I have a one-day adventure planned that is taking me months of training to get to. I have no idea if I’ll manage to make it. (more…)

Understanding Sterlina

That was me in the mid-90s. Was I that different from Sterlina?

I often get nightmares. I used to blame them on the murder mysteries I read as a child or the police drama series I used to watch as a young adult. I stopped doing all that but the nightmares never stopped. I think my subconscious is strongly linked to my conscious. It turns all my real-life worries into horror-movie-worthy nightmares.

Last night I had nightmares of war. The part of the nightmare I remember was about me walking into a room and discovering it was full of Iraqi fighters. They were all pointing huge weapons out of a large balcony, focusing on something, people probably, not far below. I went to their leader, a rather stocky woman wearing a flowery dress with henna-painted fingernails. I was told that if I wanted to leave the room I had to have her permission. I gave her the most innocent I’m-of-no-matter-to-anyone look I could muster and told her that I really needed to go home PLUS I had to go to the toilet anyway. She looked at me very briefly, she was busy, and told me that it was dangerous out there. How was I planning on making my way home? I told her I’d walk to my father’s house which was not far away. I promised her I’d be fine. She allowed me to leave. There were many other woman in that room who were being held captive who were not as lucky. Perhaps they hadn’t tried to ask for permission like I had? Perhaps they knew too much already and could not be allowed to leave for that reason? A very young friend of mine was there. Her father’s house was close to my father’s house. She asked me to ask permission from the leader to take her with me. I woke up just as I started explaining things to the leader. I’ll never know if we both managed to leave.

When I woke up this morning, I tried to figure out what it was I was thinking about the day before that would have stimulated this nightmare. An aspect of this dream is reminiscent of the days of revolution in Cairo in 2011. But I realized that wasn’t what brought this one to the surface.

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook posted an article about an 18-year-old Dutch girl who converted to Islam, wore a face veil, and soon after fled from the Netherlands to Turkey by train, crossed the border into Syria, and married a Dutch-Turkish fighter.

Her story freaked me out.

This morning I figured out why.

Had the Internet been around when I was that age, that girl could have been me. (more…)

The Trials and Tribulations of a Wannabe Runner

I’ve said this so many times already but I’ll say it again: I absolutely, whole-heartedly, from the

I look anything but sexy when I'm running. As you can see, I didn't even bother buying this was I was so under-impressed with my sexiness.

I look anything but sexy when I’m running. As you can see, I didn’t even bother buying this one I was so under-impressed with my sexiness.

innermost part of my soul detest running.

Even so, or perhaps as a result, I so want to be a runner.

That is how mentally deranged I can be sometimes. And now that I’m running, I have absolutely no idea how I can maintain this runners’ lifestyle.

I’ve dabbled in running for a few years. It’s never been anything serious. I used to resort to it as part of a larger training regime. I never trained to be a good runner. I ran (let’s call it jog instead) to diversify my workouts. Jogging on my treadmill at home was a handy way to get in half an hour of exercise before going to work some days. That was pretty much it.

And then I married a crazy Scotsman. He runs and partakes in running races and triathlons the way I eat basboosa (the most delicious Egyptian sweet you can ever imagine). I accompanied him to a couple races and thought they looked “fun”. He encouraged me to run a bit more and to participate in a couple 10km races. It was ugly. But despite the fact that I repeatedly refer my readers back to my horrible memories of being passed in my races by a limping 50-something-year-old stroke survivor, countless overweight people, the elderly, tiny children, and once (get a load of this) by a blind lady, I persevered. I’ve kept at it. I ran my first half marathon earlier this year. Who would have thought that I could run 21km? I wouldn’t have.

But is that enough for my deranged mind? No. I need to run faster. I can no longer accept (I couldn’t to start with but now I REALLY can’t) watching little kiddies so easily pass me by when I run the weekly 5km race, called a Parkrun, in the UK. I just won’t have it. So now not only am I trying to be able to run longer distances, I’m trying to run them at a faster pace. AND IT SUCKS!  (more…)

Travel, a Longing, and the Ultimate Destination

There is a longing inside of me. 

I can suppress it for weeks at a time. But eventually it resurfaces in a way that I can no longer ignore.

There is a longing inside of me.

That longing has shown me how big and beautiful the world beyond my tiny little one can be. It has shown me that within me lies another world the depths of which I’ve barely touched.

That longing has taken me places. It has taught me things. It has pushed me beyond every limit I thought I had.

There is a longing inside of me.

That longing has placed me face-to-face with my fears and anxieties and has told them to go fuck themselves because I’m going to do this anyway.

That longing has shown me how I can be incredibly weak yet exceptionally strong in the same moment.

That longing has made me dream. (more…)

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…)