My Letter to a Younger Me

I turned 46 this year. If I could send a letter back in time to a younger me, this is what I’d write:

 

Nadia, 

You’re about to turn 30. Strap yourself up in your seat belt because it’s about to get really tough.

You’ve already started to see glimpses of how difficult things are going to get.

The unhappiness. The general feeling of discontent. The loneliness. Feeling lost about almost everything.

All that gets worse. Much much worse.

Prepare yourself for a long period of darkness. You will feel like you are drowning. Every now and then you’ll find a straw, you will grab onto it thinking it will pull you back to the surface only to discover it’s a thorn. You will be pricked, you will have to let go of the thorn, and you will sink ever deeper.

Things will get so bad at one point that, for the first and only time in your life, you will briefly consider ending it. Breathe. Let the moment pass. It will.

You will call out for help. You will explain, using all the words you can find, what ails you. You will be clear that you need professional help. The people who matter, who can help, will hear you. But they will not be listening.

You will look around you and not know whom to trust. You will have many people around you, but you will feel as if you are alone in a stark, empty desert. (more…)

The Myths and Truths of “Listen to Your Body”

Foam rolling to nurse an aching leg before a run

Listen to your body.

How many times have people said that to me over the past ten years since I decided to become physically active?

But what does it mean? The implication is: If your body tells you it is tired, if your body tells you it needs a rest, then give it a rest.

But it’s not that simple, is it?

The easiest thing in the world is to use “listen to your body” as the best excuse in the world not to go to the gym, or not to go out and run, or not to get on that bike and cycle. That’s what physical activity does: it makes you feel tired. You’ll have aches and pains. You’ll get ravishingly hungry. You’ll feel hot or cold or itchy or sleepy or mentally pushed to your limit. If every single time we listened to our body when it told us we didn’t want to do something, we would hardly do anything.

I cycled across Europe last year. I know I go on and on about it. But it was one of the best experiences of my life. And I learned so much from it. On that trip I felt tired every single day for a two-month period. E V E R Y  S I N G L E  D A Y. There were times on that trip when I had cycled for more than 100 kilometers, I was lost, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was hot… but I kept pushing myself to get to my next destination. I complained in my blog posts during that trip incessantly. I complained about how tired I was. I complained about my aches and pains. I complained about all my anxieties. It’s what I do. I express myself to get the feelings out of my head and be done with them. I got many messages from people telling me it was all right to take a break. It was all right to slow down. It was all right to give myself a rest. Yes. It would have been all right. But I didn’t need to. I could and I did keep going because I knew I had it in me despite the aches, pains, and anxieties. I knew I had the physical and mental strength to do exactly what I set out to do. And on the few rare days when I felt I really needed a break, I gave myself one as a treat.

I’ve been training for a marathon now for months. I’ve found this experience even more grueling than a two-month cycle across Europe. (more…)

News That Eats You Alive

I live-tweeted a whole revolution in 2011. I posted pictures, videos, I wrote a few blog posts…but mainly I tweeted an almost minute-by-minute account of what was happening during those 18 fateful days in Egypt.

I wanted the world to know. I wanted the world to hear. I wanted the world to see.

I’m not sure I knew what I expected the world to do once they knew what was happening, but it was important to me for the world to be on our – the revolutionaries’ – side. It was important to me to have the events documented as historic evidence of what we went through and what we faced.

I am very aware of this when other things happen in the world.

Yesterday, three young Muslims were shot to death, reportedly execution-style, in their U.S. home in what seems to be a hate crime. Two days before that, 22 Egyptians died trying to get into a football match. The police played a major role in their deaths. A few days before, news surfaced that ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive while in a cage. A few days before that, a terrorist attack in Sinai resulted in the deaths of 32 military personnel. Three weeks earlier, two gunmen killed 17 people working for a media outlet that published cartoons mocking Islam. In the days in between, a young Egyptian mother was shot dead while demonstrating in Cairo, ISIS executed God-only-knows how many civilians, people in Syria and Iraq are being killed and tortured, there are countless political prisoners rotting in Egyptian jails…it just goes on and on and on.

Every single life is important. Every single one. Every single life is a story; there are mothers and fathers and siblings and spouses and children and friends. Every story is worthy of being told. Every story needs to be heard, needs to be seen, needs to be known.

When horrendous and great things were happening in Cairo between January 25 to February 11 – and beyond – I needed the world to know the details. I needed the world to know how I felt about it all and how it all impacted me. I am a person. I have a story. I need my story to be known.

Every single person deserves that same amount of attention from the world.

But by becoming acutely aware of these stories and the reactions to these stories, I am, oddly enough, slowly losing my hold on reality. I am slowly becoming more and more anxious. I am slowly feeling more and more helpless. (more…)

Betrayed

My 18-year-old daughter, Somaya Abulfetouh, wrote this poem in light of last night’s horrible events in Cairo. She has given me permission to publish it on my blog.

Betrayed

By Somaya Abulfetouh

A boy of sixteen leaving his home

Once in the street, he kicks a stone

His mother sleeps, her door open a crack

She has no doubt her son will be back

A man and his wife go out to root

He wears a jacket, she wears her favorite boot

They’re happy and giddy; it’s their favorite team!

For a long time that’s been their dream

A girl of fourteen bids her father farewell

He tells her not to be late; she tells him she’ll be well

She checks behind her back out of habit

She’s so innocent, like a little rabbit

The boy of sixteen never got home

The man and the wife didn’t die alone

The girl of fourteen was not well

Who calls their families, who’s the one to tell?

Children and men, what did they do?

They had no ticket; they couldn’t get through

Is that why they died? Is that your excuse?

They shouldn’t be punished, not even a bruise!

“You should be protecting us, you should be our safety!”

“If you’re the ones who kill us, what should our fates be?”

Everyone wants to know what this is!

They all shed tears for all the injustice

If a mother worries when her child leaves to school

And a husband can’t let his wife out the door

If every time a man leaves so he can provide

He isn’t sure he’ll be home that night

How can they call this their home?

How can they live if they’re that death prone?

No one should have to go through this much pain

If this is a drought, when will come the rain?

Never Not Thinking About Egypt

I’m struggling to make sense of Egypt and Egyptians. I’m really really struggling. I’ve reached a point

I took this picture during the January 25 revolution in 2011.

I took this picture during the January 25 revolution in 2011.

where I bury memories so deep inside of me that most recent events in Egypt are a mere blur in my head. People talk about the various huge post-January 25, 2011 demonstrations in which hundreds have been killed and all I can find in my memories is a hazy image of me sitting in front of a laptop or a television set in a complete state of incomprehension. I hear the names of people in jail or of people who have been killed and all I can say is, “Wait. Which one is that?”

Being away from Egypt for just over a year now has been a small blessing. I needed to break away from it all. I was suffocating. But just when I think I’m pushing through what I’m sure is post-traumatic stress disorder from the hundreds of events that have happened since the revolution, something new happens in Egypt and I feel like someone has a huge, hairy hand on my head, shoving my whole body into a crouch in a small, dirty, smelly sack.

I can’t breathe.

Why is Egypt the way it is? Why are so many Egyptians the way they are? Why can’t we have normal problems? And a normal life? Why has it become so commonplace for Egyptians to be killed by the police, the army, thugs, and neglect? How is it that there is no justice for the innocent while the guilty get away with their crimes scot-free? What is wrong with us?  (more…)

Marrakech: A Half Marathon to Remember

It was hot. It had been over a year since I ran in the heat. Am I up for this? What if I get heat stroke or

My pre-half-marathon breakfast.

My pre-half-marathon breakfast.

heat exhaustion? “Just get yourself to the next 5km mark, Nadia. Get yourself there, slow down, drink some water at the water station, and re-evaluate then.”

The past few months I had been running in the cold of northern England. In the past few weeks, the cold had reached a below-freezing stage where I could feel my leg muscles clench from the cold. But as long as it wasn’t snowing or raining, running in temperatures above freezing was not so bad, I eventually realized. I would always warm up five minutes into the run and that was that. All I had to do afterwards was focus on getting through the run without needing to make a stop behind the bushes to pee in public. Running on snowy, icy, muddy ground was when it really got difficult for me. It’s almost impossible to fall into a comfortable stride. I’d look for slippery spots and play a complicated game of avoid-the-invisible-mines to make sure to stay injury-free. I need to stay injury free.

I reached the first water station. (more…)

Hopeful Desperation in an Unjust and Terrifying World

This morning I woke up to find several of my Facebook friends sharing an Arabs Got Talent video. I’ve never properly watched the show nor have I cared to. But just as I’ll click on a link to a video that any friend recommends as interesting or funny, I’ll click on a shared Arabs Got Talent video every now and then too. So I clicked on this one to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a musical group of young Palestinian children from Gaza. They trained through the recent Gaza bombings. There were days on end when they couldn’t go to school but they would train as a group nevertheless. They described how difficult it is for them to see all the destruction in Gaza as they make their way to their institute to train. They tried several times to get out of Gaza to participate in the show but they couldn’t. The border with Egypt, the only way out, is often closed. But they eventually managed to get themselves across the border, onto a plane from Cairo Airport, and into Lebanon for the auditions. “We want to show the world that there is talent in Palestine,” said the youngest of the group. The group was composed of one singer and four children on musical instruments. The singer, probably around 13-years-old, had the hugest smile on his face throughout the whole audition. They played and sang a song by legendary Lebanese singer/songwriter Wadih El Safi (1921-2013) about the return of a loved one; the implied message in this particular case being one of singing for the return of Palestine. The children played and sang the song beautifully. The judges were all very impressed; so much so that one of them, a Saudi comedian, pressed the golden button that allows them an automatic go-through to the next rounds. Gold confetti dropped all over them as they continued singing the song to its end, with the youngest player on the classical Arabian instrument, the zither, crying tears of joy.

I always have a good cry when I see people accomplishing their dreams. So it isn’t strange that I had a really good cry while watching this video. But this time was different because of the context of the past few days. I’ve had a very deep-sitting feeling of loneliness and frustration since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I feel as if I’m not understood – by hardly anyone. I feel like I want to sit the people of the world down in front of me and slowly explain to them why it is that we’ve reached the situation we’re now in. I want to tell the Western powers-that-be what they have been doing and continue to be doing wrong. I want to tell my fellow Muslims what they have been doing and continue to be doing wrong. It’s all so clear in my head but because there are so many intermingled and complex reasons for it all, they get jumbled in the area just before my throat so that it feels like it all just comes out in a putrid spew of vomit. I can’t seem to find the energy or the willpower to put together a proper, evidence-based argument to be able to clarify things the way I see them. (more…)

Terrorism and the Need to Acknowledge Accountability

I have a mixture of feelings of relief, angst, and anger following yesterday’s dramatic end to the search Earth_Western_Hemisphere_transparent_backgroundfor the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

Relief, because two psychotic murderers no longer roam the streets of France.

Angst, because of the brutal backlash that has already started against Muslim communities in the West.

And anger, partly at my fellow Muslims for seemingly wanting to fully distance themselves from any accountability for the current state of the general Muslim mindset/culture. And partly at the general Western world for not wanting to take accountability for a whole context they have played a huge role in creating.

I was glued to the television set as I watched events unfold live yesterday in Dammartin-en-Goele and Porte de Vincennes. I was awash with relief to see them come to an end. But at the same time I was horrified that yet four more had died in the midst of it all. For some reason I need to know who those four people are. I woke up this morning and the first thing I did was to turn on the news, hoping more information had been released. It hasn’t. There is a connection I need to make with those remaining four.

Yesterday night, just as the events ended, I learned that a friend of mine had recently moved to France. “Today they put a pig’s head in front of the mosque,” he told me. “Several women had their hijab pulled off their heads and there is a horrifying incitement campaign [against Muslims]. People are directing their anger at Islam and not just the murderers,” he said.

Early this morning I woke up to a status from a Dutch Muslim friend reporting that within her own limited network two mosques were firebombed, two women were soaked in beer by a co-passenger on the train while being called “fucking terrorists”, the mother of a friend was pelted with coca cola bottles, a young woman was told at the supermarket register that she should feel ashamed to still wear “that rag on her head”, numerous friends of friends were cussed at, slapped, lectured on their obligation to apologize, violated, etc., while bystanders did nothing. All the victims she had heard of were veiled women, she said.

I fear for my friends’ lives and for their families’ safety.

What frustrates me the most, I think, is the constant blame game that ensues after these sort of horrific events. No one wants to take responsibility for the mess we’re all in.

There is no simple answer to the question: what makes a person become a terrorist. Terrorism is the result of a very large number of complex factors. What acutely annoys me is that most of us have a very good idea what they are.  (more…)

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…)