Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Crossing the last mountain.

My sister in her baby walker and me
sitting on the couch drawing with color pencil
Photo taken sometime in 1993
After many years of questions, I found out what I’ve been trying to pass in but couldn’t. I had one last mountain to face in my life.

I couldn’t name that mountain, I wasn’t able to see what went wrong. Why do I act in this way? Why are my shoulders crutched up as if they were carrying the weight of this world, all the time?
Why do I have these messianic tendencies of trying to save the world, but coming off as annoying and unwanted help?

These questions bogged me down for as long as I can remember. Though the subject is my life and the object is me, I couldn’t reflect on what had happened. People did share with me some  cues, but these hints were never clear enough to trigger any real change in the way I was thinking about this topic.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew there was a problem. In fact, I’ve been trying for so long to make that shift after being stuck in 2nd gear for so long. 

It took one person to effect that change.
One person, who really cares about me.

Her communication style is direct and clear, yet also kind and understanding. She listens deeply and speaks to the heart. She is an amazing person.

Despite the fact that I have probably pissed her off so many times without even knowing, she was patient enough to get back to me some other time and talk to me about it.

With her, I realized that there is one last mountain I need to overcome.

Previously, I overcame many other mountains like passing through Secondary school and university, overcoming emotional heartbreaks, public speaking, dealing with crunching family and financial crisis after my father’s death, cycling (yes I learned how to cycle, on my own, at the age of 24!) and –with the help of that same friend – overcome the fear of floating and learn how to swim.

However, the last mountain seemed like a never ending hike up the steep slopes of the icy Alps. Every step I took up that mountain, I slipped 10 steps behind.

Alpine icy mountain - Credit: Outside Online

Then it had occurred to me that perhaps that last mountain was simply the past.

That made sense: the past provided me with the experiences that make up much of my knowledge and memories today.

Falling back on to my technical side, I drafted up a spreadsheet and called it the “Past Analysis Matrix”. I listed 7 columns. They were the name of the event that occurred to me in the past, my age at the time, which phase of my life was it, the details of that event, the outcome, lessons learned and the a numerical evaluation of the event.

Past Analysis Matrix

Then I wrote down the main events, I can still clearly remember, and gave each of them a score on a scale from 1 to 10; 1 being worst experience ever and 10 is the best.

This ‘scientific’ or numerical way of dealing with past helped a lot. Desensitized, it gave an evaluation of my own past with logical scrutiny rather than emotional impulses.  

There were several findings from this matrix:
  • First, I discovered that in general, my past scored an average of 5.9 (the pass grade) despite the extreme traumas and bad memories that I kept track of in that spreadsheet. 
  • Second, that most of the bad events, happened around the age of 10. It was a downward spiral to that age and then it started improving afterwards. Since I’ve been so focused on this individual events, I wasn’t able to break loose out of these memories.  
The matrix and the numerical analysis of my memories and experiences, brought back in mind what has been buried for years: My anger and frustration at, including the loss of trust in, life.

The background story


Riyadh skyline. Credit: By Ammar Shaker, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was 9, my maternal grandfather, whom I’ve loved the most had a brain stroke. 

Previously a long time solider in the Jordanian army, he worked in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s at a major military agency in their mechanics unit. 

He was strong, reliable and loving man.

When he got the stroke, he was on the road driving back home. 

He had such a strong will power and survival skill that despite being half paralyzed, driving on hectic high speed roads of Riyadh and in the middle of brain stroke, he drove himself to the emergency entrance of the military hospital that belonged to the institution he used to work with. 

He was a miracle indeed. Doctors were surprised how he could make it to the hospital and survive 3 days of medical mishaps until he was finally treated and overcame his stroke. It didn’t leave him unscarred though: His paralysis continued after the stroke had ended, he couldn’t talk, feed himself or walk on his own anymore.

Things started to go downwards from that moment. Despite working for almost 28 years with that institution, he didn’t get a retirement pay because he was a foreigner. He had to leave the country and go back to Amman.

Since he won’t go back on his own, that also meant that my Grandma and one of the aunties would leave too. That was the next blow to me. 

My grandparent’s place in Riyadh was my favorite happy spot in the city. My mum and I would go to their place and stayover for the weekends. 

These times were so much fun and also an escape from my father’s grip.

A few months later, my Grandparents flew back to Jordan and my uncle moved in to their place. Of course, we visited the place but my happy spot was gone for good. 

Then my dad got a job offer in a new city with a better pay and perks.

Just before my tenth birthday, we had to relocate to Jeddah that I barely knew, lost all contact with my longtime friends and had to start from scratch. It didn’t help at all that we had no relatives in town. 

Jeddah Skyline - Credit: Ammar shaker - via Commons

Feeling alone and terrible, I got horribly bullied at the new school I went to. The bullying was purely racist, since I was the only Egyptian boy in a class full of “fellow Arabs”.  I scored badly in all the subjects at school with the exception of the Art class.

My father couldn’t do anything to stop the bullying at school, neither the teachers nor the headmistress helped either. Dad always promised me with things we would do together or things he would get for me but never fulfilled his promises. He wasn't a reliable person.

My mum couldn’t find a job and also suffered from being cut off from her social circles and friends back in Riyadh. We got trapped in to this situation. I wasn’t able to help her or myself. 

Then the third blow (the same year): My Grandpa got lung cancer and a few months afterwards he passed away on his hospital bed in Amman. Neither my mum nor I were there to say good bye. I hadn’t seen my grandpa for a year and then he left forever!

My parents didn’t even tell me that he passed away until weeks later. They didn’t want to tell me because I had “exams” and they feared it would affect my grades, that already sucked. 

What they couldn’t realize though is that I had felt what was going on and when they told me, I wasn’t shocked at all. I didn’t cry. I just looked back at them with a blank face.

And since then, I got angry at life. 

I lost my grandpa, my friends, my old school, my weekly happy spot and ended up trapped in a city I knew no one in except for my immediate family, which also included an abusive father.
I lost trust in almost everyone and everything; I basically lost trust in life.

Then things started to open up a little bit. I defintiely inherited part of my grandpa’s character, especially the extreme determination and willpower: When I want to do something, I’ll do it regardless of everything else that stopped me. That gave me the first push out of the abyss.

My connection to my mum became even stronger as I listened to her whenever she was on the verge of breakdown and stood by her side. I started playing and talking with my younger sister more often. I saw more movies and watched more TV shows, read more books than I had ever done before in my life.

I passed my exams. My grades didn’t improve overnight, but it took a few years until I got back to the A’s and B’s. That also meant that I hadn't got many friends since I was so focused on passing my IGCSEs. 

Then, things took a better turn as I moved to Cairo, to go to college. It was a dream come true, to finally get out of my father’s direct control and out of Saudi Arabia (with all due respect to the many wonderful Saudis I’ve met in my life). 
Cairo - El Ourba st. Heliopolis. Photo by author
It was like I’ve been starving for years and found a free open buffet.

Every other day I went to some museum or arts performance, pub, club, cultural center, volunteering activities or even to the Opera. Nonstop. I always managed to make myself busy with something for almost the 9 years I’ve lived in Cairo.

Despite these significant improvements in my life, I couldn’t see the bigger picture. I still had the urge of forming new friendships and connections to compensate for the past and never be alone ever again. 

However, since I missed out a lot on socialization during my years in Jeddah, it wasn’t a natural process. It turns out that using my very own skills of determination, pursing goals and so on didn’t work well with friend-making and socialization. 

Luckily though, life gave me even a better treat and sent my way a few friends where it felt so natural to be with them. 

Yet, deep inside, I still focused on the details and workings and couldn’t see the bigger picture. The feeling of loneliness loomed over me even though I was sitting next to the people who really care about me!

Then enter Egyptian Revolution 2011. 

Unknown protestor facing off with a Central Security Forces battilion. - Credits unkown

It was a turning moment in my life. Young people like me took to the streets to revolt against a patriarchal police state and managed to force some change despite international ‘political analysts’ and best-selling, Wall Street journalists had thought otherwise. 

I started to trust people a little bit more again. 

Then I got hit. Literally.

Feb 9th, 2011 - Tahrir Square - Credits: Wikipedia
In December 2011, a few days after my 22 birthday, I got injured in the head with an almost lethal blow. I was hit by a stone thrown by one of the police/military personal trying to disperse the Cabinet Protest (as it became known in the media afterwards, with the iconic image of the blue bra girl being dragged and beaten by 3 soldiers).

Rushed to a field hospital after losing loads of blood on the spot, the survival and determination skills I got from my grandpa kicked in. Some volunteer doctors gauzed my injury with cotton and a band. I was taken to the hospital in an Ambulance but I was not lying on the stretcher but rather sat on the side seat and then walked into to the emergency room on two feet. 
Picture of soliders beating and dragging away female protestor.
This picture became iconic for the December 2011 Cabinet Protests,
also known as the Blue Bra incident.
Credits: Tahrir Newspaper headline
Doctors were surprised: Despite the severity of the incident, I had no concussions, no major loss of memory or loss of cognitive abilities. I didn’t need a blood transfusion despite the blood loss. 

Other than the skull fracture I got, I had no other issues. Even that fracture was self-healing; the expert doctor I went to later said that I didn’t need any surgery because the part of the skull that got fracture was broken into small pieces but they were still in their place. They didn’t bend in or touch the surface of the brain. 

They would heal on their own after several months.
Again, I was lucky. 

However, people started getting on my nerves again. Politically, they were defending the police despite the fact that I experienced these event myself. 

They only got to hear about it from the news. By this moment, the media already was turning the public opinion against the revolutionary tide in Egypt. Even some of my extended family members believed what the media said despite my first hand encounter with the protests.

 SCAF erected wall in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, Cairo.
Creidts: Mona Abaza (Captured 21 February 2012)

The breakdown

Fast forward to 2013, it was the 2nd anniversary of the 25th of January revolution. By now I was part of a volunteer action group called OpAntiSH (Operations Anti-Sexual Harassment) that aimed to protect female protestors from sex attacks started by anonymous mobs in Tahrir square.

It was one of the longest nights ever. No training or experience could have helped make it any better, or at least that’s how it felt like. 

During that night, we had to save as much women as possible from the mobs that were mixed in with other protestors and people in the streets with aim of pushing them out of the protest through sexual assault. 

"My Soul Will Never Be Defeated" by Doaa Eladl, a cartoon about the sexual assault of Egyptian female protesters.

In these circles of hell, there was nothing called personal space. At one point, I felt my rib cage was being crushed from the extreme number of people surrounding me and pushing back and forth. Trapped, I couldn’t move or even help the girl who I can hear her screams a few foot steps away. 

After a few minutes, we got some back up and I managed to get out of that holdup. It didn’t stop there though, as similar incidents occurred simultaneously all night.

I was almost stabbed, shot at, beaten and witnessed extremely humiliating moments. Not to mention the tear gas thrown by the riot police, but that was just like perfume on top of a pile of shit.

Despite being lucky again lucky, surviving all these lethal incidents and help a few women of what could have been the end of their lives, I lost trust in people again.

There were exceptions of  course such as some of my colleagues, the few friends I still was in touch with and of course my mum and sister, but that was about it.

Leaving the scars behind.

Again, I was lucky. Out of hundreds of applicants, I was one of 7 people who got the DAAD scholarship and were accepted to the M.Sc Environmental Governance program. It was a race to finish all the paperwork on time, get the visa and plane tickets and move to Freiburg, Germany. 

View of Freiburg Münsterplatz from the Schlossberg - Photo by author

I thought that by the virtue of moving to this new city I should be able to, you know, start a new life. This time, though I was moving to a town I had little connection to, I was actually looking forward to it. The first few months passed by quickly I got used to this beautiful city on one of the corners of the Black forest and the borders with France and Switzerland. 

Despite having so many new friends and passionate colleagues, I still had the feeling of loneliness  lingering in my mind and distorting the lovely view of the mountains and forests surrounding the city of Frieburg. 

I kept holding on to some of my old connections, waiting for their acceptance and seeing with despair how some of my old “friendships” died. Moving to Germany exposed many of my previous incorrect perceptions of relations with certain people.

I started to understand that most of the people I considered as friends saw me as an acquaintance or even as a resource. They would drop me a message when they wanted something, I happily responded with loads of information and offered help. They took it and that’s it. 

They only connected with me to keep the relation open since I was in town and reliable. When I moved to Germany, they
even stopped trying. The few who messaged me overseas asked questions related to Germany, or someone looking for a scholarship or a study program. 

I tried hard to connect and I tried hard to please people, so that they don’t leave me again. Nothing worked and some of my attempts came off as being a bit awkward too.

Then again I got lucky. 

Due to the room shortages in Freiburg, for the first year I couldn’t find a long term contract. That wasn’t the lucky part, but because of the constant move, I had new friendships all over town and some of them didn't even require no effort at all. It was like just be there. They were happy with me the way I am. I felt like I was at home.

Still, I didn’t see this because I focused on the details and I couldn’t wrap my head around the general view or trend line in my life. The loneliness feeling didn’t go away, but I was too busy to think about that anyway.

The big picture. 

Downtown Kuala Lumpur - Photo by author
This summer, I got accepted to an internship in Kuala Lumpur after a long search. I took it straight away, though I didn’t have the funding or the logistics arranged. Things went well, and since I had much more time on hand, I picked up on working out and other stuff that I hadn’t had time to do throughout the last few years. 

Then, I met the challenge that my brain has been avoiding  for so many years. Previously, by making myself busy, I managed to put off the negative thoughts by simply working harder, at everything. 

Somethings worked better, but things like social relations just stagnated. 

Then I got help, which I didn’t expect, or at least not in this way.

The friend I mentioned earlier, came to me and spoke about my continous and all the time extra-mile effort with people. That came off, at many times, as an undermining behaviour or even an obsessive attachment. 

I didn’t even think of that at all. 

I was so focused on the details, I didn’t not see my actions in their full extent. I felt terrible and bad that I made this very close and amazing person feel that way with actions I thought were doing the opposite. 

Again, I was blessed. Despite what I had done, she listened deeply and helped me out, talked me though it. 

Unlike me, she saw the greater picture and then showed it to me. 
Her words, clear and descriptive, explained it all without being harsh or hurt my feelings. 

She gave me cues to the puzzle. I had a mountain to face and that mountain is related to my need of feeling accepted and the fear of losing people. 

That led to the personal retreat, which inspired the past analysis matrix spreadsheet I made.

After writing down all these details, and giving them numerical evaluations, I discovered that life, in general has been treating me well despite the downfalls; that most of these bad incidents were induced by other human beings and not by life.

I realized that I was angry at life because it took away my grandpa, when in fact it was his previous lifestyle of excessive smoking and poor dietary habits that led to his stroke and then lung cancer. My love to my grandpa, blinded me from the fact that his death was merely related to his health condition that was mainly impacted by his own lifestyle.

I realized that I was fuming at life because of my father, though he was the one who was abusive, had his own problems. Life had no business with his anger management issues.

I realized that my loss of many of my friends was not because life took them away from me, but rather because they were not good friends to start with. Or their friendships were based on a different understanding. Whatever their reasons were, life had nothing to do with it and I should have not invested any more effort in attempts of keeping them close.

I realized that the last mountain I was facing was my past. Or to be more accurate, how I’ve framed the past and saw it though it’s very narrow details and memories.

The matrix gave me numerical evidence that, in fact, my life was improving dramatically and that despite the few glitches, I was doing quite well. 

It was all in my head.
[path in the Schwarzwald, photo by author]

At this point, I understood all the comments that people used to say about my life; how lucky I am to have worked at certain places, the scholarship and the places I got to travel to.

It turned out that this mountain was all in my brain. It was something that rested within brain cortex handling my self-perception and self-image formations. 

For the first time, I look at myself at the mirror and not see the blemishes on my face or the small belly I have; but rather how generally good looking I was. 

I got to see how that by just minding my own business and being at ease, people thought of me as nice person. I didn’t need to do anything extra to be a good guy. 

I didn’t need to read that article about “10 tips on how to be a better person” because I am already good. 

After more than 16 years since my grandpa had passed away, I could finally cry over him without being angry at life; accepting that he had passed away and that I had to let go of him and continue with life.

At last, I faced that last mountain, gave it a name, dealt with it and pushed it aside.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

My Angel set me free

I was locked up with the beast, for hours
In dark room, sitting on the floor, facing the cold air coming down on me…
With only a small red light giving some light.
He wouldn’t let me go…
He wouldn’t let me drink or sleep,
When I wanted to pee, but he wouldn’t let me be.
I was locked for hours, indeed
I felt alone and very small.
I was only 7, when I got locked up in a room by the beast.
The hours trickled slowly and the seconds got longer,
I cried, I begged, but nothing would make him let me free.
Then, I just couldn’t hold it any more.
I wet myself while I was awake.
I felt terrible and bad.
I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe
For he must be even angrier with me.
He turned and said “Why couldn’t you hold yourself?”
I told him I wanted to pee and he won’t let me bee.
He gave the order, “Fetch the belts from the closet”
I saw it coming, I could even feel the whips on my skin.
In a twist, he asked me to vote: which belt he should use on me?
I looked at them.
They all spoke of torture and pain.
I refused, I rejected.
He picked up the slippers, instead.
Then, I saw the light.
It was my Angel..
At last, My Angel came to my rescue.
She came and took me by the hand.
She pick me up, with her reassuring smile and compassion,
She eased my pain and cured my wounds.
Then I was no longer with the beast,
For my Angel had set me free.

Photo credits: Purple Twirls -