On the challenges of keeping an open heart

When I was much younger, I read an interview with Debra Winger – an actress I adored growing up – talking about a meeting she’d once had with Kathleen Turner, another strong, sensual 1980s heroine who’s sadly fallen off the radar today.

I can’t remember the specifics but Winger said she’d met Turner briefly at a party – or perhaps on a film set – and the latter had been friendly enough, but a little aloof. To paraphrase Winger, she said she got the impression that Turner had made all the friends she wanted in life and wasn’t interested in acquiring any more.

I must have been in my late teens or early twenties at this point and I remember thinking: Why would anyone do that?  There was something very disconcerting about it to me – this idea that you could suddenly reach a point where you’d made all the friends you needed in life and you weren’t interested in reaching out anymore, in meeting new people, in being challenged. It seemed to me to be the ultimate sign of a closed heart.  And a closed heart was exactly what I wanted to avoid.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve had two major, but very contradictory, realisations.  The first was a sudden and profound understanding of exactly what E.M. Forster – a writer I read a lot of in my youth – meant when he said ‘Only connect’ – an achingly simple phrase that was only very loosely penetrable to me in my teen years. (That connecting with your fellow human beings, whether by seeking out ‘kindred spirits,’ or by having a brief but uplifting exchange, was actually the very essence of life.) Living as I do here in Cairo, far away from family and friends, those words have often echoed in my head. People can make you miserable, no doubt, but they can also make you blissfully happy.

But running alongside that realization was the slow dawning that age and experience, and perhaps also my life as an expat, had terribly coloured my view of my fellow humans. I realized that I was no longer as willing as I once had been to give everyone a chance. No longer did I repeat to myself fervently that everyone had good and bad points; nor was I willing to be as open as I’d been before. I had better instincts now and I was more willing and able to follow those instincts. To put it another way, as I told friends, I had become smarter, and thus fussier, about who I spent my time with.

Perhaps that, in itself, is no bad thing – it seems to make sense that you should surround yourself with good people, as hundreds of positivity books will tell you.  There is the undeniable fact also that we understand ourselves better as we get older and become more comfortable with who we are, which then influences the choices we make. And yet, it still seems to me a fundamental fallacy, somehow – this idea that age and wisdom make you more discerning about people and your circle will narrow but strengthen as a result.

I think the truth is more prosaic – life and age can harden your heart, and sometimes you never even realize that it’s happening.  An accumulation of hurts, big and small, a multitude of let-downs – as is bound to happen in life – a cacophony of so-called ‘a-ha’ moments (I was an idiot to trust that person/ I was wrong about this one/ this person is going to let me down) and a few rejections move you further and further away from the open-hearted generous soul you once were, or may have aspired to be.

Once upon a time, I chose to trust and to accept that a bruised heart and ego might be an acceptable consequence of that choice, the price I would pay for having an open heart. Somewhere along the line though, I’ve lost that ability, to the extent that my life has now become littered with people who haven’t quite ‘made the grade,’ while the number of people who do make the cut become smaller and smaller.

At the end, it is always a choice. Living like this means a life lived from fear – a fear of rejection and hurt – a life lived from our lower rather than higher selves.  Better, I think, to force open our hearts once again, to live with courage and conviction and love, to remain open to life and to new people and all the challenges they may bring. If the heart is a muscle, as they say, only practice and exposure will strengthen it.

Overprotect it and it will wither away and slowly die.

Al Jazeera – why?

I watch Al Jazeera English pretty much constantly these days – another hangover from the Revolution. I wasn’t always impressed with its revolution coverage, which struck me as unnecessarily emotive at times. Call me old-fashioned but I still believe that us journos need to strive for objectivity, as impossible as that may be in practice.

But its coverage in general is tremendous. There’s a freshness about its perspective that’s always invigorating. CNN is simpIy too… American for me – though I was forced to watch it for a time when I was having problems with my satellite dish and, in fairness, it was much better than I expected. And while I appreciate the good old Beeb and its World Service, the rigid format feels increasingly tired and stale – the antithesis of what rolling news should be about.

Al Jazeera on the other hand offers a genuinely unique – dare I say, third world – perspective on what’s happening in the world. I love the fact that it strives to use native reporters, for example: after years of watching the same old white faces covering the developing world, it’s incredibly affirming to see Sri Lanka covered by a Sri Lankan reporter, or Pakistan, India, South America, Africa – all covered in fresh and interesting ways by people who actually have some link to the area. Or take its documentaries and strands like the wonderful Surprising Europe – a series that covers Europe from an African immigrant perspective. That may sound tiresomely ‘right-on’ but if you haven’t seen this yet, I urge you to. Put simply, Al Jazeera reaches the parts that other news channels simply don’t bother with.

But having said all that, why, oh why did it choose to devote virtually an entire day to coverage of the 9/11 anniversary in the US? I watch Al Jazeera because I’m usually confident that I’m going to see things that wouldn’t be touched by the other networks, instead of which I was regaled by a steady diet of 9/11 commemoration, from Paul Simon and James Taylor singing – both singers, incidentally, that I love – to endless speeches from everyone involved.

Americans have the right to mark this day exactly as they choose to – but does the rest of the world really need to see the minutiae of their day? Writing from a region in turmoil – no journalistic licence here – where Gaddafi’s on the run, Syrians and Yemenis continue to revolt, Mubarak’s trial kicks off again and Egypt and Israel attempt to mend fences – not to mention the renewed state of emergency here in Egypt – was there really nothing else to report on? By all means, cover the anniversary or, better still, show us some timely documentaries about how the world’s been impacted since then. But endless live coverage of every detail taking place serves only to re-enforce the gaping divide between Americans and the rest of the world.

9/11 was a terrible, traumatic event – I still vividly remember watching those images of the plane crashing into the towers and the apocalyptic feeling that descended on us at the time. And there’s no doubt that what happens in America affects us all – Iraq and Afghanistan are testament to that. But the simplistic narrative propagated by Bush and his cronies – those dichotomies of good v bad, innocent v evil, etc – echoed by many of the speakers today (check out Joe Biden’s speech if you want an example) – is irresponsible at best, in light of everything that’s happened since. Nearly three thousand people lost their lives on 9/11. More than 200,000 people lost their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts – at a conservative estimate. And these conflicts are ongoing.

9/11 may have been unique in its conception but it was horrifyingly predictable in its outcome – a tragic and unnecessary loss of ‘ordinary’ life. Setting it apart in some way or viewing it as the pinnacle of evil, as the prevalent narrative suggests, and coverage like this promotes, cheapens the deaths of all those ordinary citizens who lose their lives daily in equally unnecessary, appalling acts of violence – whether state-sanctioned or terrorist.

Al Jazeera – I expect better from you.

The day of no departure

The ‘day of departure’ may not have gone to plan but the ‘revolution’ seems to be back on track. Unbelievably, despite the bloodshed and bitterness of the last two days, thousands and thousands of people made their way once more to Tahrir yesterday (which must surely be re-named Jan 25 Square soon, to accompany 6 October Bridge and 26 July St and 15 May Bridge and all the other dates that mark this city.)

For the first time in 48 hours, we ventured out too, late in the afternoon when it seemed conclusive that the pro-democracy group had taken back the streets. In the morning, there were still reports of attacks on foreigners coming in – one friend sent out a group mail telling us that her friend, an American girl, had been dragged out of a car with a group of Egyptian male friends and they had been beaten and spat upon.  So we abandoned an early plan to go and stayed in – the situation seemed too volatile.

But later in the afternoon, an Egyptian friend called us from Tahrir and said that it seemed safe – he had seen foreigners and press, he said, and the atmosphere was tremendous.  We were watching the images ourselves on TV, in amazement at the numbers who were turning out. So we decided to go – a motley group of us: an Egyptian man, his Dutch wife, who has Egyptian citizenship, a German-Palestinian woman and me, a British Indian. Ironically, out of the three women, I look the most Egyptian but speak the least Arabic. My Swedish friends, who have accompanied me on all of these trips so far, stayed at home reluctantly – both tall, thin and blonde, they simply look too ‘foreign’.

So I left my British ID at home and my camera and anything that might mark me as a foreign journalist. This time the checkpoints started at the entrance to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, rather than Tahrir itself, and we were searched numerous times along the way (my lighter was confiscated but not, ironically, my Dictaphone which I had forgotten to remove). Hundreds of people seemed to be leaving Tahrir but there were still big crowds heading in. The atmosphere was calm and surprisingly organised, though it was impossible not to feel a little jumpy after the last few days.  Piles of stones and rocks lined the roads, a grim reminder of the violence that erupted here.

Inside, Tahrir looked a little bit like a battlezone, on temporary relief from the war. On the wide road leading up to the Square, exhausted men slept on the pavements. Others simply leaned against walls, too tired even to hold up their signs. Occasionally I saw men with bandaged heads or plasters.  But in the heart of the Square, there was still something of the festive atmosphere of Tuesday, with spontaneous chants breaking out amongst the huge crowds, speeches and singing.  At one point, there was wild cheering and clapping – a rumour had gone round that Mubarak had stepped down which soon turned out to be untrue.

It is impossible not to be moved by the mass of humanity at Tahrir, this great exhausted group of people who started a revolution that is now reverberating around the Middle East.  They have come out day after day – or never left – and battled every attempt to shift them: the riot police, water cannons, tear gas, rocks, hired thugs, the Mukhabarat, even horses and camels in the Square.  What happened yesterday was a reminder to Mubarak that there are still many who are prepared to fight for change. Perhaps the brutality of the last couple of days has also backfired against him – one Tweeter said she had been on his side after his speech but watching the violence on Wednesday had made her shift back.

But painting this ‘revolution’ in broad brush strokes – the people v brutal dictator – as tempting as it may be internationally, is wrong. Although the pro-democracy movement has re-gained some ground after yesterday, this long stalemate is not helping either side. Both sides are now fighting for their lives since both fear serious – perhaps fatal – recriminations if they lose. I have secular friends who fear the Muslim Brotherhood  will take over the protest and are caught between them and Mubarak.  And there is a vast middle ground that simply wants it all to end, with Mubarak serving out his term if necessary.  As one friend said to me yesterday: “We have waited thirty years for him to go; surely we can wait another five months.”

The most popular solution currently is that Mubarak retain his position as president but in an honorary capacity, while his real powers are shifted to Suleiman for an interim period, until elections can take place.  That may be unpalatable to some but it seems the best chance for unity and stability for this fractured country, surely the priority at this time. (As another friend said: There will be time for revenge later.) There are rumours that Suleiman will be speaking to the ‘council of wise men’ that are now representing the opposition soon and that things are shifiting, albeit too slowly for many. The curfew has been lifted today, until 7pm, allowing a degree of normality to return to the streets. But where we go from here is still anybody’s guess. This protest has defied all attempts thus far to predict an outcome. The one constant remains the uncertainty.

Notes on a revolt – part 2

The eyes of the world are on Egypt, but few of us can communicate with the outside world.  Today is day four of the internet blackout so I have asked a friend in England to post this for me.  Our mobile phone service was resumed on Saturday but we can’t send or receive text messages.  Normal life in many ways ceased on Friday, after the battle of Kasr-El-Nil Bridge.  Since then, those who can have been raiding their supermarket shelves, stocking up on supplies. Public bakeries have already introduced rationing – no more than 10 slices of bread (Balady bread  – a little like pitta bread – part of the staple diet here) per person.  The banks are closed and few ATMs are working.  There are road blocks all over Cairo at night, manned by the men of each neighbourhood, to deter looters, after the police all but disappeared after Friday.  Few shops and no businesses are open. There is a curfew every day, roughly from 4pm to 8am (today, it began at 3pm).

And yet somehow, we have simply resumed a new kind of reality. My neighbourhood, Zamalek, home to many of the foreign embassies here, is a privileged one – because we are an island, we have not been hit with the looting and chaos that has engulfed much of Cairo for the last two nights. Instead it is eerily quiet, especially during the curfew hours, although yesterday that was punctuated by the sound of two military fighter jets flying low over the city. We go out during the day to re-stock, get some fresh air, meet friends and neighbours and get a feel for what’s happening. Otherwise, we are glued to our TV sets – for me Al Jazeera English and the BBC mainly. The government has shut down Al Jazeera’s Egypt office, so many Egyptians are restricted to the state news service which is broadcasting a completely different version of events. But somehow, despite the attempted blackout, we are all absorbing information, almost through osmosis.

This morning, I went to Tahrir again with some friends (Downtown is just across the bridge from us – about a ten minute cab ride). The demonstrations over the last two days have been peaceful, mainly because the riot police have disappeared – unlike on Friday, when this heart of Cairo became a war zone.  I went on Friday with a group of friends to witness the demonstration and we ended up taking shelter in one of the big hotels, overlooking the Nile and Kasr-El-Nil Bridge on one side and Tahrir on the other. Riot police swarmed the streets and thousands of demonstrators battled them on the bridge for nearly three hours, despite the water cannons and rubber bullets and what seemed like an endless supply of tear gas. Plumes of smoke and gas almost obliterated the Cairo skyline from where we stood. When the demonstrators finally pushed through just before sunset, the police seemed to scatter.  That night, there were fires all over Downtown, from the ruling party headquarters, just down the road from us, to over-turned cars and police vans, and even the Mugamma – the ugly but iconic monolithic government building that looms over Tahrir.

Today, a few police have reappeared but it is the presence of the army and its tanks that dominate Tahrir. By the time we arrived, at around 11am, there were already thousands of demonstrators encamped in the Square. We made our way through an army checkpoint with no problems – from what I could see, they were doing nominal checks only. The atmosphere in Tahrir was electric, almost festive. The army is not feared here, unlike in many other countries, and they have already said that they will not fire on the people. There were people from all walks of life, young, old, well-dressed, poor, many carrying hand-written signs – one in English simply said “game over”. Tahrir was bathed in sunlight once again – it has been beautiful weather for a revolution. Every now and then, spontaneous chants would break out in Arabic – “The people want the president to fall”, “Go away, Mubarak aren’t you ashamed?”

At one point, we spotted a young doctor and asked him about the makeshift hospital in a former mosque we had heard about behind the Square, and whether he would take us there. The soldiers manning the checkpoint near it were reluctant to allow us through at first but relented. The ‘hospital’ is tiny, manned by volunteer doctors and stocked with a limited supply of mostly donated medicines. They told us they had performed emergency procedures for those overcome with tear gas or hit by rubber bullets or tiny lead pellets, before sending them to the local hospitals.  One doctor told us that they had seen at least 13 dead in there since Friday. Today, the room was mainly quiet, apart from the sound of the Azan nearby, marking the midday prayers, that floated through the air.

Outside, we spoke to a number of the demonstrators who gathered around us. Many are worried that their message is not getting through to the outside world and they are eager to speak to foreigners. Some had been there since January 25, last Tuesday, when the protests began, which seems like a lifetime ago now. They are all, to a man, upbeat and determined to keep going until Mubarak stands down. They sense that the momentum is with them now. But they disagree as to what should happen next – if they think about it at all. Perhaps that is a reality that can’t quite be comprehended yet. There was no particular love of ElBaradei, the closest thing to a leader the opposition can claim. Nor is there any love for Omar Suleiman, the new vice-president Mubarak hastily announced a couple of days ago. One man mentioned Ahmed Zewail, Egypt’s Noble Prize winner for Chemistry, to me as his choice of leader.

There is much more to write but I’m running out of time. These are uncertain times for Egypt but there is also tremendous excitement in the air – a sense that history is being made and that an awakening has taken place. More than anything, there is a sense of pride amongst my Egyptian friends and all those I speak to – perhaps the one thing they feel was lost most under the current regime – and I am happy to be here to share that. I don’t know what the future holds – tomorrow marks the one week anniversary of this revolt and a million people have been called to join the march from Tahrir towards the Presidential Palace. At the moment, they are united with one common aim – to remove Mubarak. If, or when, that happens – it is difficult to believe that he can last much longer – the real struggle will begin. In the meantime, we watch, we wait and we hope.   

Why Cairo?

I’m always asked this – what brings a British Indian woman all the way from London to Cairo?  For the average Cairene, especially, there is bemusement – why would you give up all the conveniences and luxuries you have in London to live here?

I’ve given it a lot of thought and I still don’t know. I tell people the truth – that I had Egypt in my blood from a very young age. My mother puts it down to taking me to the British Museum as a child, when I was awe-struck by their collection of (stolen!) Mummies. I remember also watching a 1970’s Hollywood film called Sphinx with an Egyptologist (Lesley Anne Down) who goes to Cairo and gets embroiled in cursed tombs and plots to steal ancient treasures, alongside a brooding Egyptian (Frank Langella!). It’s a terrible film in many ways but the romance of it stayed with me for a while.  Apparently, I told an old school friend around then that I would live in Egypt one day. 

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate with a degree in Film and Literature (what does one do with that anyway?) and a yen for travel, I hit upon Cairo as the perfect place for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. It didn’t happen. Nearly 10 years later, bored and drained from too many years of PR in London, I thought about Cairo and that TEFL course once again. And then 9/11 happened and the axis of the world seemed to shift a little bit and heading out to Egypt didn’t seem like such a good idea after all.

In between, I managed a Nile Cruise, on a slightly shabby boat that will remain nameless, in the scorching heat of the June sun (which would explain why we got it at a bargain rate). So we drifted up the Nile and saw Aswan and Luxor and the Dam and took in the temples and souks and some of that legendary Egyptian hospitality – but I still didn’t make it to Cairo.

It wasn’t until I was 37 and travelling around the world that I finally arrived in the city.  Out of an eleven-month stint involving nearly 20 countries in four different continents, I allowed myself three and a half weeks in Cairo.  And thankfully, I fell in love – literally and metaphorically (how awful, I think, for a long-cherished childhood dream to dissolve in tatters around you).  I roamed the streets, drinking in the chaos and colour, from the tranquillity of an Old Cairo mosque to an incredible Oud player at one of the cultural centres, from smoking shisha in crowded Downtown streets to braving the cliches of the Khan.  But more than anything, it was the warmth of the people that stayed with me – the constant Ahlans and Welcome to Egypts, the easy smiles and the realisation – wise, it seemed to me – that nothing is more important than human contact. 

This is why I live in Cairo. I may be a cynical old hack at times but there is still romance in my soul.

You get the love life you deserve…

  …is a quote I heard in a movie once (a pretty awful rom com in every other way so I won’t mention it) and it struck a chord.  The full quote went something like this: Every woman gets the love life she deserves.

Now I think it applies as well to men as it does to women so I generally forget the woman part. But I mentioned it, as I am wont to do, to a few friends (mainly female) and what surprised me was how much resistance it garnered.  “That’s a bit harsh,” said one, which seemed to sum up the general feeling.

But why?  It applies equally, it seems to me, if you’re blessed with a truly wonderful love life or a crap one. The point is that, in some way, it’s the love life you’ve set out to create for yourself.  If you’re with a man (or woman) who treats you well and attends to your needs, it’s partly because you think you deserve it. You may have been born with that attitude or you’ve gained it after years of kissing frogs and having your heart trampled on.

If you’re with a man, on the other hand, who doesn’t give you the respect or attention you crave, and you’re putting up with it, it’s partly because you don’t think you can do any better. You’ve convinced yourself that you love him, warts and all, and that, in some way, you’re responsible for his behaviour. And in many ways you are, though not in the way you may think.

This isn’t about holding out for Mr Right or refusing to settle for anything but the best – I’m not sure I subscribe to either one of those philosophies. It’s about taking responsibility for your relationships and realizing the part we all play in creating them. When you know who you are and what you want, you send out clear messages that anything else is unacceptable.  That’s got to be a pretty good place to start.

Fake it ’til you make it…

is the motto of a very good friend of mine and I’ve decided to try and put it into practice

The principle is this: if you’re feeling down for whatever reason, or you’re hit by ennui or that malaise that seems to hang around every so often, don’t do what seems most tempting – to me anyway. Which is to slouch around, go home as soon as possible, lie on the couch and watch rubbish TV (made even more rubbish by the fact that here in Cairo, it’s next to impossible to get your hands on a TV guide). Or indulge in a bar or three of Green and Black’s milk chocolate (undoubtedly the finest milk chocolate in the world) which I did when I was back in London earlier this year

No. Throw your shoulders back, adopt a swagger and walk around as if you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Force yourself to go out, to meet people – one of the last things I feel like doing right now – and to laugh.  Apparently there’s some scientific evidence (isn’t there always?) that making yourself laugh releases all sorts of positive endorphins in your body


 I know it’s true and I know that meeting new friends, or simply laughing with old ones, is one of the quickest ways to make yourself feel better.  It’s just hard to shake off that ennui enough to want to try sometimes