Aimless in Australia


I was woken up at 6.34 a.m. by the sound of Chinese chatter outside my door. Room 407 was right opposite the lift and in my immediate post-waking stupor, the repeated ding-dongs and the upward and downward inflections of Mandarin amounted to a form of torture. The Great Southern Hotel where I had been staying for the past two nights was in the heart of Sydney’s Central Business District, right on the edge of China Town, and two hundred metres from Central Station, Sydney’s main transport hub. A good location no doubt, yet it was a hotel of whom only one of the adjectives in its self-appointed title was true; there was nothing great about the Great Southern Hotel, or perhaps nothing great anymore. Built in 1858 and extended to seven floors in 1903, it sported an impressive Art Deco façade and a marble laden lobby. It stood incongruously amid the eateries of China Town, surrounded by modern, ugly glass towers. Even though the rooms of the hotel had clearly been renovated recently, the renovations must have been conducted under a limited budget, for why else would the rooms fail to be either functional or beautiful? The carpet was ugly, the water-pressure non-existent, the A.C. had two settings: sweltering hot or freezing cold, the T.V. was untunable, the mattress broke your back, the blanket was covered in hair, and the fridge – whose only contents were two small packets of soured milk – stank. It reminded me of the dodgy bed and breakfasts around Sussex Gardens in Paddington. Back in 2003, during my exile in Hull, I would spend a couple of nights at one of those places on my weekend escapes to London. These were establishments that were not loved by anyone and, accordingly, did not love anyone back. You do not need to believe in Feng Shui to know that a building can repulse you, or be repulsed by you.

Good thing, then, that I was leaving. Yes, that was my last morning at the Great Southern Hotel and in Sydney. And there was no better day to leave than this. Last night, the weather had taken a turn; the sunny and pleasantly warm winter days of the previous week gave way to a daring wind and an increasingly confident rain. As the temperature dropped, my winter coat, once again, came to the forefront of my wardrobe. Yes, it was the perfect time to leave New South Wales and head to Queensland, the state famous for its sunshine, its national parks, its tropical beaches, its great reef, and its not-so-open-minded inhabitants (as the New South Welsh and the Victorians I had met in Sydney were quick to warn me). But it would be a lie if I were to claim that I had any reason to go to Queensland, or any grand plan. In fact, I had no personal reason to come to Australia, and had it not been for the invitation to speak at the seriously titled conference Culture, Cognition, and Mental Illness, it is unlikely I would have set foot on this continent.

I’ve never had a burning urge to go to Australia. It never struck me as a place I ought to visit before I’ve travelled in South America and East Asia to my satisfaction, and I haven’t yet. I have similar sentiments about Canada, a country that is so low on my list of travel priorities it is unlikely I will ever get to it. I’ve often wondered why I harbour these sentiments. To be sure, there is something unattractive about the New World nations owing to their often tarnished histories; perhaps distance has something to do with it, a point that definitely applies to Australia as I was to learn during the brutal experience of 22 hours of confinement in an economy seat; maybe there’s a personal prejudice lurking somewhere, a prejudice regularly stoked by the encounters I have had with a certain type of Australian in London. You could say that my travel consciousness of the world never really included Australia, a consciousness that, during high-school in Egypt in the 90s, was directed towards Europe.

In the late 90s and the first decade of the millennium I had my fill travelling in Europe. The first country I travelled to completely on my own was Germany in 1995, followed by Morocco in 1997, Spain in 1998, Norway in 1999, and California and Nevada in 2000. After moving to England in 2003, I made best use of my new-found proximity to Europe to explore the continent and I made no less than twenty-five visits to many of its countries. From 2006 onwards, my travel consciousness expanded markedly: China, South Africa, Mozambique, Cuba, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Namibia, Lebanon, Swaziland, Lesotho. Yet, aside from a three week visit to New Zealand in 2012 – also motivated by conference attendance – it never occurred to me to set foot in that part of the world. It’s not strange that my travel consciousness had developed in this way. When Egyptians travel, they invariably go to Europe, and in particular to the Northern and Western parts of Europe. I know very few Egyptians who have ventured beyond this region. It’s where my father cut his travelling teeth, and where I sharpened mine. And perhaps if I had not had the chance to really satisfy my European curiosity, I would not have ventured further either. But something more is going on: Egyptians have a specific idea of what travelling should be about. For many Egyptians, the idea of leaving Cairo to holiday, say, in New Delhi is absurd – why would you replace one maniacal metropolis for another? And so is the idea of going ‘camping’ – a good holiday is defined by comfort, shopping, and a smattering of culture, and not by tents, cold oats, mosquito nets, and bush toilets.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, Syndey 2018

(tbc someday)


More Things in Heaven and Earth


For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).

The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, Slow to Hell

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Old Mut, Dakhla

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot


Havana : Encounters

Havana: Encounters


 I’ve always lived as if there were no end in sight. What I mean is, I’m continually destroying things and building them back up again. It’s never occurred to me that I might end up crazy or suicidal.

Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy


 I was hanging around the restaurant Floridita, spending time in the red light district, roulette in all the hotels, slot machines spilling rivers of silver dollars, the Shanghai Theatre, where for a dollar twenty-five you could take in an extremely filthy stripshow, and in the intermission see the most pornographic x-rated films in the world. And suddenly it occurred to me that this extraordinary city, where all the vices were tolerated and all deals were possible, was the real backdrop for my novel.

Graham Greene on Our Man in Havana (1958)


Parque Central, Circa Hotel Ingelterra: 29th August 2012, 4p.m.


I am lounging on a stone bench facing the central monument in Parque Central. The city is buzzing and the humidity and heat are overbearing. Nabokov’s Lolita is on my lap. I started reading it, devouring it, on the bus from Santiago de Chile to St. Pedro de Atacama; a 24 hour ride the only remaining memory of which – apart from Lolita – is a lingering and intensely unpleasant scent that I still am unable to identify. I have only two pages left, and I am beginning to experience that feeling of satisfaction which accompanies the end of a book you have savoured, when a Cuban man interrupts me. He appears to be in his early forties, and approaches me with buoyancy – he reminds me of those toys that spring out of a box and only cease moving once the lid is closed. “Que es su pais?” he asks in a question that I have already heard at least ten times today, and it’s only my first day. “Egipto” I reply. I notice that he is wearing a white skull-cap, and my hunch is correct. There are only five-thousand Muslims in Cuba, he begins, and an Islamic centre. It was complicated getting the communist government to approve the mosque. He mentions Ramadan, which has just concluded recently, and the difficulty of fasting in the tropical Havana heat. Upon learning that I too am Muslim, (yes I am, well .. sort of), and my name is Mohammed, his heart gives that jump of joy that for some reason Muslims of all nationalities and ethnicities seem to feel towards each other, especially when they meet in unexpected circumstances. I am now his brother – hermano.

My beer is getting warm and I have quickly learned that in Havana if you do not consume your freezing cold drink within five minutes you will be left with a disgustingly hot fluid. I offer him some of my beer and an expression of shock forms on his face: “you drink beer?!” Fascinating: I have come all the way to Havana where everyone is practically naked in the streets, where Rum is literally more common than water, where young, unbelievably bodacious girls with round asses and sexy cleavages are gyrating to the Salsa and Reggaeton ever present in the streets at the Prado, at the Malecon, in this city, and on my first day I – who by Havana standards is a prude, a conservative – am being told that I am doing something that is morally wrong. It can only come from a Muslim. Unperturbed, in fact quite amused, I explain in broken Spanish that I must not be a good Muslim then. He asks if I would like another beer and if I would buy him an orange juice, and we head off to a nearby ‘Centre’; I don’t know what else to call it; it’s a big, greenish hall that combines shop, supermarket, grocery, bar, cafeteria, with a young man on a laptop DJing through massive speakers: it crosses all the familiar business and entertainment boundaries. I get the feeling that it also doubles as a pick-up joint – prostitutes yes. Then again, almost everywhere in Havana is. As I proceed to buy a Cristal (the local Cerveza) and an Orange juice, he asks if he can have a beer too. Hermano, I wish I told him, you just disapproved of my drinking, what’s the deal? But… no. Two minutes later we are drinking our ice-cold Cristal while on the table next to us two curvy women, a Black and a Mulatta, are eyeing me in that way only prostitutes are capable off. My friend looks towards them, “there are too many prostitutes in Havana”, he says. Many days later I will remember that he is one of the few men whom I have met in Havana who have not asked me if I want a girl, or three or four my friend, whatever you want, anything you want, can and will be arranged.


El Malecon: 8th September, 9p.m.


Having explored Havana Vieja over the course of several serious traipses, and having had properly taken in the renovated as well as the crumbling colonial splendour, the quaint plazas right out of pastel-illustrated story books, the jiniteros – the tourist hassle, the never-ending inquiries about your origins, and the constant attempts to suck CUCs off you (Cuban Convertible Pesos: read dollars), I set off for a much anticipated night-walk down the Malecon, Cuba’s name for what in Alexandria, Egypt is called the Corniche. The Malecon is Havana’s vista onto the Gulf of Mexico; Miami is only 367 kilometres away.

The Malecon starts at the end of the Prado, a central and grand, marble laden avenue that has seen better days. As I head West by the seawall I am struck by how dark this stretch of the Malecon is. I can see light perhaps half a kilometre or so down the road, but then the Malecon descends into darkness again. Havana is barely lit; wherever you are, you are likely to encounter only the faintest lighting, always smooth and its deflection by the pillars and arches of the colonial architecture creates eerie shadows and a compelling atmosphere. But this stretch of the Malecon is pitch-black, and had it not been for the din of human conversation and the occasional released laughter, I might have continued to believe there was no one there. But it is the interplay of light and dark that sets my perceptions, definitively, right. In a scene that recalls those elaborate magic tricks where a whole building is made to disappear and reappear, each passing car coming from behind lights-up the stretch of the Malecon seawall within the reach of its headlamps to reveal, momentarily, a cornucopia of embraces, kisses, fishermen, naked thighs, rum, love, children, a trumpet, old-women, teenagers, passion, two guitars, prostitutes, and all this is shrouded again in darkness as the car, more often than not a relic from the 1950s, crackles along noisily towards Vedado.

Walking down the Malecon is like stepping into a party where all are welcome, a party that stretches several kilometres. But the Malecon really is the Alexandrian Corniche; more often than not an outlet for those who cannot afford more elaborate avenues of entertainment or who simply want to escape the heat and humidity of the inner city motivated by the promise of a sea breeze, a promise which in September is rarely fulfilled. It’s also a place where people are busy working: prostitutes, of course, but also fishermen with invisible lines, old-ladies selling popcorn and nuts, and guitarists offering entertainment for a peso or two. But, really, the Malecon is nothing like the Alexandrian Corniche whose image on a hot August night keeps pinging in my head: men selling seeds and nuts, families – most females appropriately covered in veils with varying degrees of modesty, a few scattered lovers shyly holding hands, no rum, no thighs, no kissing and certainly no trumpets. A triple shroud of humidity, heat and Egyptian-style conservatism; where is the fun in that? No, the Malecon is a different world. In itself it depicts the essence of Cuba, in a nut-shell, paraded right there by the sea. Hedonism, a limitless capacity for fun and passion, and a refreshing openness and freedom of the flesh, all entangled in not-so-pretty knots with the most profound neediness I have ever encountered in a society.

But neediness is not attractive, and I don’t want to get into that. Not now. I am enthralled, for the moment, overwhelmed by the palpable sexiness of the place. I continue further down the Malecon. I might have walked for an hour – I was pacing myself, what is the rush? Eventually I reach Calle 23, which is right before Hotel Nacional, and is the main avenue that cuts through Vedado. Right, I need a drink, and maybe a disco, somewhere to keep the promise, the potential, of excitement. But I make no headway: pacing up and then down Calle 23 I experience action-failure. I cannot decide what to do, and I am not sure why. I head back to Havana Vieja and on the way a thought takes hold of me: I can’t decide what to do or exert any energy apart from that required for walking because I am exhausted; I am exhausted from the constant efforts to brush aside the thoughts, urges, impulses and nascent intentions that beleaguer my mind every two minutes, every time I see a stunning Cuban woman that is.


Callejon Hammel: 9th September, Noon


I wake up at midday dehydrated and with a soaked pillow. Before I fell asleep the previous night, I had formed an intention to visit Callejon Hammel. Each Sunday at noon there is a Rumba jam for a couple of hours and I am not going to miss that. I pull myself together, down a freezing cold beer and a LADA drops me there for 3 CUC. Callejon Hammel is located on a side-street in Centro Havana, just off San Lazaro and close to the Malecon. The area is a few metres wide and stretches between two buildings, an art gallery on one side and a school and restaurant on the other. The place is randomly decorated with wild and crazy murals that fit the adjectives ‘psychedelic’ and ‘colourful’. They depict images of contorted individuals and musical instruments. Towards the end of the ‘corridor’ there is an area decorated with several bathtubs placed in awkward positions, a few glued to the wall. The tubs partake in the colourful murals found elsewhere in this most unusual space. Having arrived half an hour late I miss the beginning of the music. The place is packed, and a few tourists are lingering around. At the centre of the corridor is a rectangular area surrounded by a make-shift barrier; the audience surround this area. Inside are four drummers on congas and several singers and dancers. Three dark and sweaty women in bright yellow dresses and elaborate head-gear are singing and acting and miming in weird and beautiful ways the significance of which, I must say, eludes me. At one point one of the women who earlier had left the performance area begins to return in dramatic and slow movements while emitting a regular shriek, a truly ear-piercing shriek, with a constant wide smile and psychotic eyes, while the Congas gradually build up a complex sequence. I am drawn to the rhythms and the chants, even as the unbearable humidity reduces me to a dripping mess.

Gradually I begin to attract the attention of the locals. A girl who by no means can be more than twenty, if not younger, starts winking at me and smiling, occasionally sticking her tongue out in a gesture you would expect of playground school kids not a woman trying, presumably, to seduce you. A few minutes later she comes to introduce herself to me: she is Carla; she thinks I am beautiful, and she gives me a peck on the cheek. She wants to be my companion. I reject her offer in the gentlest way possible and decide that there is no place better than this to find a conga teacher, something I have been trying to achieve for the past two days. I throw the question around and within minutes I am introduced to Carlos, a percussion teacher, a conga player, and an old-hand at that. But Carlos is performing next, and I have to wait for him. I retreat to a shady area and suck at the cheap 5 peso cigar I bought earlier. Carla remains intent on sticking by my side. A pleasant, young Cuban man who speaks some English approaches me and we have a chat. He asks me what I think of Carla, do I like her? She is cute, isn’t she, he says, implying that I really should accept her offer of companionship. I am not sure what to make of this; does he know her? Why does he care? A few minutes later I find myself chatting to another Cuban guy accompanied by a black woman. A truly curvy, tall woman with big hair, and a striking face, her skin glistening with sweat. She is wearing a tight, low-cut black top hugging her breasts, and an equally tight and short black jeans skirt. The conversation slowly drifts to ‘Cuban girls’ – “they make you crazy my friend”, he says – and inviting me to look at his companion, he holds her hand and twirls her around slowly to give me a good view of her body: a magnificent ass, a full bosom, serious curves, and dark, dark, soft and taught skin. She only barely resists this demonstration of her charms. She lets out a giggle, pulls her arm gently away, and I swear I notice the hints of something I have not so far seen in Cuba: she blushes, and walks away while coquettishly glancing back at us.

I resist.

Carlos returns and invites me as a spectator into the drum circle beyond the barriers, a privilege grounded in the student/teacher relation that we are about to have. Carla continues to follow me and sits on an adjacent chair. After ten minutes, perhaps upon realising that not much will come of this, she leaves. The jam is now over, and Carlos asks for my help to transfer the congas to the location of the lessons. I pick up the rather heavy Tumbadores and wrap my arms around it. It is a truly ancient specimen of a conga painted in red, now peeling, and with rusty bolts holding an impossibly weathered animal hide in place. I follow Carlos into Centro and into the relentless sun, and it occurs to me that it was in 2001 when I first discovered Cuban music and formed the earliest intention to visit the country that can produce such elegant and complex, subtle rhythms. It would take eleven years for this dream scenario to materialise. And here I am.


A Traipse to Plaza de La Revolucion: 10th September, 3p.m.


I don’t know why I walk for hours each day. I don’t even spare those few hours where the sun is perpendicular and the shade non-existent. Rachel says only mad dogs and Englishmen. Perhaps it is some form of atonement, or compensation for my years of semi-embodiment in cold and sun-less London. And what a contrast it is: my daily walk to the conga lesson takes me down the Malecon just before midday, and with my shirt half soaked in sweat and glued to my skin I’ve come to discover that sweat has a smell. I am not talking about the repulsive, rancid smell that emanates from your armpits when you forget to use deodorant, no. It’s a sweet, subtle smell that I’ve come to think of as the unique smell of our species, in the way that dogs, horses and birds have a special scent. And I’ve never noticed it before Cuba.

We wrap up the conga lesson just after 2p.m., and instead of returning to Havana Vieja I decide to visit Plaza de La Revolution. The distance from the beginning of San Lazaro (where I am) to the Plaza is huge; on the map it is half the page, which is half of Havana, and Havana is a big city. I start walking. An hour and a half later I arrive at a major intersection and decide to have a break. I find a little park nestled between two major avenues and settle in the shade of a tree. Three trees away is a man holding a notebook and a pen. He is deep in thought, almost oblivious to his surroundings, and scribbles periodically into his notebook. I look across the road and see a massive billboard which reads: ‘Socialismo o Muerte’. Socialism or Death. What a statement. Surely, if socialism is so valuable – more valuable in fact than life itself – then it cannot be worth much, and certainly not worth dying for, since it becomes no longer about what matters but about itself. But this and similar slogans confront Cubans as they get about their daily efforts to make it through. It is Castro’s replacement for Persil, Toyota and KFC ads. I pull my camera out and begin conceiving a shot that can capture this slogan together with this other prototypical and surprisingly frequent Cuban sight: 1950s American giant-cars: they are everywhere. Several clicks later I am still dissatisfied with the result and I notice behind my shoulder a white Woman, probably European, and a man peering through their cameras and taking the exact frame I have been trying to capture for the last five minutes. I feel that I’ve been robbed of my private field of vision; my enthusiasm dwindles and I settle for the ones I have already taken.


Thirty minutes later I arrive at the vicinity of Plaza de la Revolution. I pause for a minute to buy a couple of peanut cones off a very old-man. “Cuanto cuesta?” “Un peso para dos”, he croaks. If today had been my second or third day in Cuba I would have thought the man wants a CUC which is equivalent to a dollar, and I would have thought that this is way too much for two slim cones of peanuts. But now I am much wiser and I know that he wants a peso which is 1/24th of a CUC: 1 CUC=24 pesos. I check my pockets and I only find one 25 cent CUC coin. Without any pesos on me I offer the man the coin. He proceeds to give me all the cones on him – four to be precise – and when I object that I can’t possibly eat so many peanuts he tells me with a big smile on his face: “take them, now I can go home”. He walks off and I am left slightly confused. I do a little math in my head and this is what I discover. I gave him 25 cents which is equivalent to 6 pesos. To make 6 pesos he needs to sell 12 cones of peanuts. Now, in one transaction, he was able to get rid of all his stock and make more than double the profit, and I am only 25 cents less which for me is a completely insignificant amount: I have a handful of coins scattered around my flat. The double economy going on in Cuba is truly confusing and it took me several days to get the hang of it. The problem is that no one explains it to you, and you can only learn by trial and error. For example, you walk by a food stand in Calle Obispo and you see an ice-cream going for 3 pesos. Naturally you would think it is three CUCs, which are also called pesos in Cuba, and is the currency you automatically obtain as you arrive to Havana. And you may end up giving the vendor 72 pesos for what only costs 3, an error some vendors, naturally, are not always keen to correct. In time you begin to identify peso places and CUC places, and some are labelled too: Moneda Nacional. During my last week in Havana I manage to have my daily breakfast for 10 pesos, less than half a dollar: a double espresso for two pesos and a sandwich for 5 or 8. But then a few hours later you find yourself at a hotel-bar downing Mojitos that cost three or four CUCs, a quarter of a doctor’s monthly salary.

Is Cuba poor? Not obviously so. Not on the surface, no, especially if poverty, for you, is synonymous with pot-bellied black kids starving in some African wasteland. Cubans would tell you that health-care and education are good. But in Cuba there is a lot of need, and constant attempts to obtain dollars off those who have them. And this is not surprising. At 24 pesos a dollar the gain is phenomenal and can truly make a difference to a person’s life. CUCs are extremely valuable in Cuba. CUCs are the means by which a Cuban person can obtain the amenities that I take completely for granted: t-shirts, jeans, deodorant, washing powder, drinkable rum, soap, decent food, basically anything outside of the government sponsored monthly rations that are distributed at special outlets to Cuban citizens. Cuba might not be radically poor in the way that Mozambique is, but it certainly has destitution on a massive scale: crumbling buildings, cracked walls, lack of running water, overcrowded housing, absent ceilings, unreliable electricity, poor sanitation, insufficient food rations, and the impossibility of progressing in any of those respects is guaranteed by the strong hold the socialist government has over the country and private enterprise. Wages reflect this miserable state of affairs: a doctor makes 15 to 20 CUC a month, an engineer about the same, and a police officer about 35 or 40. There is a saying in Cuba, “there are four police men for every Cuban citizen”, and it would appear that the backbone of the country is a robust police-like state. It is also hardly surprising that Havana is teeming with prostitutes who by comparison are raking it. A prostitute would make at least 40 or 50 CUC a night (or per transaction to be precise). This is serious cash here, and may partially explain the fact that prostitution appears to be detached from the usual quasi-moral values of shame, dignity and honour to the extent that women are openly soliciting for sex all over Havana and men may pimp their girlfriends and wives. But need cannot account fully for the phenomena. There are places with more significant poverty but where it is unthinkable that a man would pimp his wife or a mother her daughter, irrespective of how destitute they were. No matter how much I mull it in my head, I can only see the phenomena of massive scale prostitution as an indication of deep problems with the country; Cuba clearly is in need of some kind of change.


I arrive to Plaza de la Revolution and take in the place in all its grandiosity. I realise almost instantly the scale of the challenge facing young Cubans if one day they rise and attempt to transcend the ideology and narrative that has publicly framed their lives for decades. The Plaza is a massive open space baking in the sun and without a sliver of shade. There is not a single person here at this time of day, maybe never? On one side there is a gigantic statue of Jose Marti that rises perhaps 30 metres and on the other are two equally gigantic and elegant murals of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara mounted on the façades of two characterless, communist-looking buildings. The whole thing is arranged such that the two Revolutionaries are facing Marti, the inspirational figure behind Cuba’s late-19th century independence from Spanish colonial rule. What the space lacks in charm – it really has absolutely none – it makes up for in the ridiculousness of its scale. I suddenly get a feeling that I need to leave this space. I am so sick of having this stuff shoved in my face, I am allergic to it. It reminds me of pre-25thJanuary-Revolution Mubarak posters looming at me all over Cairo with his smug face and empty slogans. In this respect – on the ideology/empty-slogan/rhetoric/larger-than-life-venerable-leader-front – Cuba is infinitely worse than Egypt. I have seen tens and tens of Jose Marti busts of all sizes in Havana and I wasn’t even searching for them. And the main thing breaking the monotony of the main Cuban highway, apart from the hordes of hitch-hikers, are massive billboards declaring one of Castro’s nuggets of wisdom. In fact there is so much of Castro that I begin to see his name everywhere: bus company: astro; gas station: Castrol; bar: Mastro. It’s creepy.


The Birthday: 15th September, 4p.m. – 10p.m.


The Reggaeton is now at full blast. It’s reaching us from Julia’s living room. I am at a roofless back-room in her flat, the location of my conga lessons for the past week. We are seated on two cranky, rusty chairs and with the floor so cracked and uneven it is proving impossible to find a spot flat enough to place the chair and which also happens to be shielded from the sun’s relentless rays. For the past hour of my final lesson with Carlos I have been rehearsing the Afro-Cuban rhythms I have learnt over seven days. Despite the distraction of the manic and anxiety-provoking Reggaeton (I can’t stand this shit, unless a hot woman is rubbing her ass against me) I have been able to nail the Son, ChaCha, Bolero, Meringue and even the Rumba, but when it came to the complex and seriously off-beat Mozambique I struggled. Clearly the party isn’t going to slow down for us: its Julia’s 48th birthday and already at 5p.m. she is drunk.


Carlos invited me to this party yesterday. In fact it was Reyes who did the talking; he is Julia’s nephew and lives with her after his mother died. He speaks a bit of English and I still wonder where he learnt to speak this way: “Listen man, tomorrow we have a party and we want you to come, man. You know, you can get a bottle of Rum, man, a big one, seven years old man, that’s the best yes. My aunt will like it. And four bottles of coke, yes man, and we will have a party”. Naturally I obliged.

We conclude our lesson and Reyes immediately takes me to the side for a request; they need a few CUCs so Julia can cook tonight’s meal for us. I deal with this and join the party in the living room. Julia’s flat is a humble affair. It is one of the barest flats I have ever seen: totally naked walls and a cracked, grey floor without a shred of a rug or carpet, a single light bulb dimly illuminating the whole space, and a dark bathroom with no running water. The kitchen is tucked in the corridor and there is a massive pot simmering on the stove. Cockroaches periodically scurry around. Apart from the Orisha corner that is found in most Cuban houses with its doll and offerings of rum, cigars and money, there is not a single ornament anywhere in the flat. But right there on the back wall of the living room and standing in stark contrast with the frugality of the rest of the place is a table with a shiny-silver hi-fi, two powerful speakers, an external hard-drive, and a pretty decent lap-top playing the latest Reggaeton music-videos. This is the birthday gear they have rented for the occasion; it makes the rounds in the neighbourhood for all sorts of parties.


Julia invites me to sit on the big armchair and offers me a glass of cold rum. I sip at the rum slowly and try to grasp the situation. On the sofa next to me is Julia’s daughter. She is a chubby girl in the final year of teenage-hood, wearing a tight pink shirt and knickers. Yes, she is wearing semi-transparent white knickers and lying on the sofa looking worse for wear; she doesn’t feel well; a cold I manage to understand. Next to her is a plump twenty-two year-old girl with a pretty face and beautiful breasts amplified by a black and white, striped top and an extremely skimpy jeans skirt that reveals well-formed slightly-tanned thighs. She is Julia’s daughter’s friend and she is there with her boyfriend who is athletic and hip and looks about 34 or 35 but is actually 48. They “make music together” and, appropriately, he is the ‘DJ’ for the night. This gathering is periodically amplified by passing neighbours who drop in and say hello and sometimes stay for a few minutes. There is no real separation between Julia’s living room and the street; the door of the flat is wide-open, as is the case with most of the houses here, and the party spills outside to the obvious delight of passers-by who periodically would break into an impromptu dance before continuing on their way. Carlos is sitting silently in the corner, with an expression that is a mixture of disappointment and genuine kindness on a person whose general demeanour is that of a man who has been truly ravished by life. But that’s another story. Let me just say that he did not look happy when I gave him two t-shirts and a toiletries bag after our last lesson. A few lessons ago he had asked indirectly for help through a letter he had written covertly on the back of one of our lesson sheets with the hope that I will discover it. He described how destitute he is, that his daughter is in prison and he must support her kids, that he has no home and must alternate sleeping at friends’ houses, Julia’s being one of them. He wanted me to help him in any way possible; clothes, money, buying congas off him, anything. He loves his kids, the letter said, all five of them from four different women and feels that it’s his duty to support them.  At this point, however, I have already given away almost everything: I literally have only 2 t-shirts and a pair of trousers left and I need those to make it home. A few days before I had bought from Carlos what I knew where overpriced maracas and a clave, but I didn’t care. Cuba has sucked me dry, in every possible way. It stretched my capacity for empathy, love, generosity, good-will and desire, and it raided my bank account repeatedly. But I persevered, and I made it through.

Julia interrupts my reverie and appears intent on talking at me in fast and drunken Spanish. As is the case for several weeks now, I manage to pick up enough words and with all the pointing and gesturing I understand the gist of what the hell she was trying to say to me. She shows me a number of pictures of her with a sturdy looking, bald white man in his forties. Eight years ago he took some lessons with Carlos and she fell in love with him and they spent the few weeks he had in Havana together. He is Danish and Julia is waiting for the day when he sends her an invitation and she can leave Cuba for good and live a good life away from here. She hasn’t heard from him in over two years.

The first time I saw Julia she was wearing a bikini top and shorts and was sitting on the floor with a big bowl between her legs and a pile of dirty clothes on her side. She was scrubbing and scrubbing and wringing and drying and hanging while I practiced the Songu with Carlos two metres away. At one point a massive cockroach dives straight into the bowl and she, without giving it a second’s thought, picks it up and flicks it away not even looking where it had landed. If it wasn’t for the Spanish and the nakedness I swear I could easily be in Boulaq El-Dakrur or any other poverty stricken Egyptian home. It’s unnerving how poverty is the same wherever you go. Julia has a job; she is a nurse and makes a few CUCs a month which is nothing. But at least she has the guarantee of those few CUCs which is something to begin the month with. Even this minimal and temporary sense of security is a luxury Carlos and countless others can’t claim for themselves. For many Cubans there is no alternative to working the tourists in any way possible for those valuable dollars; there simply is no other way. And in this arena it really is survival of the fittest: the hustler who speaks English and the prostitute who is young and beautiful will always make it on top.

Today Julia is clearly determined to have a good time. She managed to squeeze into a tight and stylish dark-blue jeans and a yellow tank-top revealing her midriff. She is slightly manic from the Rum and keeps fluttering around the small living room, a conversation there, a dance here. The bottle of Havana Club that I brought with me really is propping up the evening, but so are the bottles of cola I bought at Reyes’ prompting an hour into the party. Julia comes and sits next to me for a rest and reaches for her cigarettes only to find she has none left. I offer to buy some and Reyes comes along to show me the nearest shop.

We set off walking at a leisurely pace. It’s half an hour before sunset and the sky is burning. The neighbourhood is wonderfully lively: kids playing make-shift baseball in the street; old men relaxing on wooden chairs perched against dodgy-looking cracked walls; four men playing a game of dominos; a couple dancing in their house to an energetic salsa; two young women in heavy make-up dressed for a night of hustling in mini-skirts, pin shoes and tiny tops, their dyed blond hair flowing over their backs. A mild yet steady and cool drizzle is falling gently on my face. Reyes is by my side and he is in the mood to talk.

“Man, it’s hard, man. Don’t you think I want to invite you to my house man? And take care of you and my friends? And get you the best Rum, just for you man, my friend? But I can’t do it man, no one can do it. The tourists say Cuba is beautiful, but its hard man, it’s very hard. Where does all the money go? One night in Hotel Nacional, man, is 300 dollars? 300 dollars! Where is the money, man. We don’t see it. Do you know why people walk in the middle of the street, man? You know why, man? The buildings are falling man, people die, man.”

On the way back from the shop we are caught in a torrential downpour. Just like that the sky opens and the heaviest, densest rain that I’ve ever seen is released upon Havana. There aren’t even that many clouds in the sky. The golden glow of sunset is now mingled with bluish-grey, bluish-green silvery hues, transforming the city around me into an impressionistic masterpiece. The rain is now so heavy that we can no longer proceed. We take refuge under the ledge of one of the buildings, and I recall what Reyes had said earlier about buildings falling but to my surprise I feel absolutely no fear or anxiety. Half an hour later the rain stops as suddenly as it began, and I notice that the humidity is now even more intolerable.


The clock hits 8 and I can definitely feel the Rum now. I have sweated so much that the upper part of my t-shirt is completely wet and because of all the humidity it doesn’t want to dry. I feel dirty and all I want is a cold shower. A neighbour who has been hanging around for a while pulls me off my chair and starts dancing with me. It’s the last thing I want. The music is Salsa-Reggaeton, more bearable than Reggaeton but a much more demanding dance. She senses my lack of enthusiasm and sees my lack of skill and abandons me on the dance floor before the song is over which must be the biggest insult in a culture that values dancing. Julia’s daughter’s friend is looking at me with admiration; I have no idea for what. I go back to my chair – I have moved next to Carlos in the corner – and within minutes my dinner plate arrives. Carlos rolls the Tumbadores in front of me, the same one that has endured my incessant drumming for eight days and now must serve me in a final gesture of tolerance as my dinner-table. I place the hot plate on its ancient hide. Whatever is in my plate has been simmering on the stove for the past few hours. It’s a medley of soup, corn and sweet potatoes with a few bare bones thrown in to create the illusion of meat. After dinner Reyes approaches me again: “do you want to smoke, man, yes just to relax you know, we can buy some”. I notice Carlos looking at us with expectation. For a minute I am under the impression we are talking about cigarettes but we are not. I explain that I don’t smoke weed, not anymore, and that the last thing I want now is to get stoned. “Man, it’s just to relax, you know, Carlos will like it. You give us some dollars to buy some, man?”

I don’t know why, I have failed to know why, but with me there is always a significant time-lag between the emergence of the feeling of the need to leave and actually leaving. Sometimes I don’t even manage to leave. It’s always been like this with me, that is my problem. So there I am sipping Rum and smoking a cigarette and waiting for the right moment to go. I am hot and tired and wet and I can’t handle any further demands no matter how sweetly presented. And just as I am about to make a move Carlos approaches me looking desperate as he always does. I feel sorry for this man. I can see the pain, the embarrassment of having to do it and I can also see that there just is no other way for him. He asks me for money, directly this time. He doesn’t need to explain his situation to me, I understand. A few minutes later we say our goodbyes and he walks me to San Lazaro; we hug and part.


On the walk back down the Malecon I feel heavy and deflated. And it occurs to me that there was no real happiness at the birthday. There was drunken euphoria, yes, which multiplied with the amount of Rum consumed, but no real happiness. There was something gloomy; it cannot be defined any more than this, and you see it when you realise that everyone is waiting. Julia is waiting for the Danish boyfriend who will never come. Reyes is waiting for the business deal that will make him rich and send him to America. And Carlos, is waiting for salvation. All they can do, all that Cuba can do, is wait.



In Search of the Missing Commandment

LINK FOR PDF: In Search of the Missing Commandment


I begin the ascent at 4p.m. After leaving my personal details at the Tourist Police Office and convincing the officer that no, thank you very much, but I do not need a Bedouin guide, I set off on the dusty road to St. Katherine’s monastery. The monastery lies at the foot of a winding path that leads after a two to three hour strenuous walk and hike to the summit of Mt. Sinai, or Moses as the locals call it. A strange mood has taken hold of me the past hour or so; a vague paranoia, a slightly heightened self-awareness. Perhaps it is the alienation of passing through a dozen checkpoints on my way here from Cairo, or the Army conscript and Police detective who requested a hike and whom I had taken on board at a checkpoint a hundred kilometres before St. Katherine’s. Maybe it is my botched sleep the past couple of nights, or the unsettling bizarreness of returning to Egypt while most of my family are elsewhere for the first time in my life. I don’t know, but I feel ill at ease. So it is with a sense of relief that I leave the Monastery behind and take the first steps to the summit. I really want to be alone. To tell you the truth this is the reason I am here. I have compulsively and hurriedly left our home in Cairo and drove 500 kilometres into the middle of the Sinai Mountains because I need to be alone. Since arriving to Cairo on the 24th of December, I have been avoiding answering the phone or talking to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. I am starved of my own company; I am hungry for loneliness.


This is not the first time I climb Mt. Sinai, it will be the third. The first time, now to me, may very well have been in another life. The year was 1992 and I had gone on a school-trip hiking with two good friends. I recall the exhaustion on the way up, the freezing cold at the summit (it was November) and, on return to Cairo, my mother’s smile and hug as she received me at home, our dog jumping on my bed and greeting me. But I recall not much else, not much that has escaped idealisation anyways: I was sixteen, and I was the kind of sixteen year old who was stuck, more-or-less, in the latent stage; everything was right and in its place, which is another way for saying that nothing much happened. This time feels different.


I proceed along the path to the summit. I notice that I am the only one going up at this time of day; I encounter many tourists and pilgrims heading down, some of them establish eye-contact complementing it with a slight nod of recognition or a curt ‘hi’. The sun is going to set just before 6p.m., and it’s already after 4; no chance of catching the sunset then. That’s fine; I am not here to watch pretty sunsets, I am here to be alone. To be honest I am pleased that I am the only one going up the mountain. The way up is more tiring that I thought it would be; I am not sure why but this slightly unsettles me. Some of the Bedouin guides I meet along the way greet me in English, and whether they do or not I throw at them a bold ‘salamu-3aliko’ which, given the expressions that form on their faces, they did not expect. They probably instinctively do not think I am Egyptian. I am already familiar with this from Dakhla. I, of course, am not blonde or fair, and my eyes are not blue, what they pick on rather is class, body-language and context: the unusualness of going for a trip like this on my own. As I was to learn a couple of hours later from one of the Bedouins who sells drinks near the summit: there is no Egyptian individual tourism here, you must be here for work, aren’t you? The explanation here is simple: act beyond people’s conception of what you are and where you belong and you will invite speculation first about your motives and, if you fail to convince, about your sanity.


I am, in fact, so accustomed to this experience that I have come to expect it. It is a class-based issue, but one that also betrays a lack of desire and, perhaps, ability or imagination to relate – everyone would experience it if they place themselves in vulnerable situations, something I willingly and regularly do out of my complete volition. I do it not because I am a masochist but because I do not see how one can keep one’s moral compass pointing in the right direction without exposing oneself to oneself and to others. It is a particular calling of mine you can say. But just this trip, this hike, that moment in my life I want to be spared this experience. I really just want to be away, and this includes being away from mutual identity-intention-motive deductions with men who are unable to broaden their horizons sufficiently to see nothing unusual in what I am doing.


It’s well after 5 and with every minute the light diminishes further. I negotiate a hairpin curve in the path while hollering playfully at the nearest mountain-side and waiting for my echo. I expect a dramatic time-lag then an eerie hello hello hello hello hello but, instead, I receive a muffled and barely recognizable single rendition of my voice. A few metres away I notice a brick shed with a colourful blanket shielding the entrance; one of many sheds along the path selling tea and water to exhausted climbers. I am about to pass it as I did many others along the way – I didn’t want to suppress my momentum – when a young man peering through the entrance of the shed calls at me offering some rest and tea. I oblige.


My father works at the Monastery, he says while switching on a small gas-stove to boil water, we are from Suez, and I joined him to make some money of my own. I am uncharacteristically disinterested. Sometimes I wonder whether the year I spent in Dakhla writing my ethnography had not only depleted my anthropological interest, but also my interest in others. Back then in 2009 I thought I was killing two birds with one stone: immersing myself in an Egyptian working-class, traditional-conservative community – something I had wanted to do properly for years – while researching the subject of my fascination: insanity. Dakhla with its many villages and distinctive isolation was the perfect setting. At the end of my time there I was truly exhausted; I had had enough of maintaining a morally and socially acceptable persona in the midst of people who were friendly and helpful, yes, but intrinsically paranoid and limited in imagination, their world so narrow it suffocated me. This young man, who by all means is pleasant and interesting in his own right, and the Bedouin guides I have so far encountered remind me too much of Dakhla. They force me into a mode of relating and being that I no longer feel the need to maintain, at least not in this era of my life, and certainly not right now.


The water is boiling. He serves me strong, sweet tea (which he subsequently refuses to be paid for) and offers me a cigarette which I accept despite having quit smoking four months before. Are you Christian, he asks. No, I say, and a long silence ensues. I fix my gaze on the mountains outside the shed, and I notice off the corner of my eyes that he is glancing at me. I want to leave.


It’s completely dark outside now. I am only fifteen minutes away from the 750 steps that lead to the summit. I am still the only one going up. Many of the tourists and pilgrims are wearing powerful LED head-lights. A short scream bursts into the silence; a woman had tripped and fell. She is helped up and quickly joins the rest of the lights heading down the side of the mountain. I arrive at the base of the 750 steps; steep, roughly hewn rocks piled on top of each other and taking you up the final 300metres to the peak of Mt. Sinai. Every step is crucial; a small hand held torch shows me where to place my foot, and my walking stick gives me much needed balance. A half-crescent provides some light, and occasionally I can see the steps right on the edge of an abyss with a small wooden warning sign: DANGER. This, is exciting. I proceed further up the mountain, my knees now slightly aching. By 6.30p.m. I am 50 steps below the summit and I find four shacks, or ‘cafeterias’. Light escapes through a narrow gap in the wooden door to a shack that has the number four painted on the front. I walk towards the shack and step inside.


I am immediately enveloped by the warmth of a fire at the far end of the shack. Four men are seated around the flame, their shoes and sandals scattered near the entrance. A faint whiff of burned wood and feet lingers in the air. Clearly excited by the sudden presence of a Cairene in their midst, they immediately welcome me around the fire and offer me a tea. The more talkative and worldly of the four Bedouins dominates the conversation, at times eyeing me suspiciously. I can sense he does not believe I am here just to climb the mountain; he’s never seen an Egyptian coming here on his own he argues. The other three men recede to the fringes of the conversation, the one on my right – an older man with a seriously weathered face – reduced to emitting occasional grunts which I surmised where in approval of whatever was being said at the time, contradictions and all. It is too cold to sleep on the peak, one of them finally says, sleep here in the shack with us. I feel nervous at this otherwise kind suggestion: the idea of forsaking the loneliness that I have come here to seek distresses me. I want to sleep under the stars, I reply with a confidence that surprises even me. A few awkward moments of silence are finally broken by a grunt of understanding that seals the conversation. Half an hour has passed and I am becoming impatient. The eloquent Bedouin then suddenly asks me what I think of the political situation in Egypt. The third stage of the elections – which includes South Sinai – starts tomorrow. I try to avoid talking politics, after all I know exactly what they think and why: they all will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood or El-Nour, they think we should never have a Christian president (look at France, will they ever have a Muslim president?), and of course Mohammed El-Barad3i (whom I think is the only man in Egypt who has the rare combination of integrity and experience) is an ‘agent’. Against my better judgement, I launch a brief attack on the Salafi El-Nour party and to my surprise I find that we temporarily share a sliver of the most superficial agreement: in so far as El-Nour will hamper tourism (the source of the Bedouin’s livelihood) they are against it. Covering women (another potential El-Nour edict) is something they do not object to: making the veil compulsory can only be a good thing, one of them orates. On that note I excuse myself. They offer me two rental blankets and a thin mattress which I lug the remaining fifty steps to the peak of the mountain. Its only 7p.m. and the cold is biting.


I am on the peak of Mt. Sinai. I walk around taking in the view; rows of jagged peaks stretch into the distance. I am the only one here, the prize for coming up at an unusual time. The crescent is still in the middle of the sky, and the constellations do not require a searching gaze: they present themselves as if someone has highlighted them just for me. It is freezing cold: three layers (one of which is bona fide Lambs’ Wool) and a particularly heavy coat do not seem to be able to keep the chilling winds out. I refrain from contemplating my surroundings and decide to settle in a corner ‘under the stars’, make use of the blankets, warm-up, and have something to eat. Within a few minutes I begin to experience the first effects of my self-imposed isolation on the peak of Mt. Sinai. As I nibble through a sandwich I have prepared this morning, I reflexively reach into my pocket for my mobile phone. Half-way through I remember that I have left it in the car: loneliness cannot be complete with this bane of a gadget on your person. I pull my rucksack towards me and have a sip of Guava juice and as I replace the carton the first of a succession of intense pangs of fear hit me. It is an undefined, object-less fear: I am not afraid of being the only one here, or of the height or the cold. What am I afraid of? A powerful desire to leave the mountain takes hold of me, but dissipates as quickly as it forms. I calm down temporarily: there is nothing to be afraid of, I say to myself. There is nothing, indeed. Nothing. I am afraid of nothing. The thought of a target-less fear terrifies me even more. Off the corner of my eye I notice a dark object just about the height and width of a person standing near the beginning of the steps. I am convinced it is a person. I stare in its direction, searching for any signs of life but I detect none. I look away, shifting my gaze to the moon and stars, seeking some comfort in the objects of my childhood fascination. But the urge to look back towards the steps is stronger than my resolve; the dark object is still there. Lost in the confusion of uncertainty, treading on the line separating subjectivity from reality, I hear a man’s sharp voice: “It is too cold outside… are you Muslim?”


In April 2007 I went on a road-trip with my father; the first of only two trips we had taken together in our newly found friendship. I climbed Mt. Sinai on my own, not out of choice but to spare my father a hike his health would not have withstood. So he stayed behind in the town of St. Katherine and I set off at midnight together with tens of pilgrims to watch the sunrise. At the time my father had only just resigned from his position as Minister of Justice, and the recency of his resignation meant that he was still some ‘one’ in the eyes of the establishment, which by the unspoken laws of proxy required that his son cannot be allowed to climb the mountain on his own and had to be accompanied by an army cadet as guard and escort. I was not really alone, nor was I seeking loneliness. Then, it was different or, perhaps, now it is different. My father died twelve weeks ago. The eloquent Bedouin was right: what am I doing here? This is not the first time I venture on a road-trip alone. But before the motive was clear: I wanted to be away from real and imagined and, in any case, increasingly subtle familial and paternal constraint. And I wanted to explore, away from the suffocation of life on the Island. Driving hundreds of kilometres into the wilderness of my favourite spot on Earth – Sinai – was always the obvious, uncontroversial choice. But my father is gone, and I can no longer fall back on the tired and clichéd narrative of escape, of ‘finding myself’. I am alone. I am here to confirm it, to confirm to myself that he really is dead. I am seeking loneliness and avoiding people because I want to see for myself what my father’s death really means away from the noise and distraction of life and the forced social engagement that characterises the way we deal with death. But what I am looking for, what do I want to find?


“Are you Muslim?” the voice repeats. Instinctively, I pull the blankets further up my face and answer back without thinking: yes I am. A man appears from a hidden cove, he is wrapped in a blanket and clearly has been sleeping: “I’ll unlock the mosque for you then, and you can sleep inside, you won’t be able to tolerate these winds.” He vanishes behind a small brick building that is the mosque and I can hear the sound of a gradually building stream that crescendos to a peak then begins to decline to a trickle and stops. He is human. He returns back to the cove and I do not see him again. Within a few minutes the cold bypasses my fortifications and reaches my skin; he was right. If I stay here, I think to myself, I might die of hypothermia. I wrap up the blankets and the mattress and head to the mosque. This mosque, I was told, was built four centuries ago. It stands a few metres from a much older Chapel that, unlike the mosque, is mostly closed to pilgrims. The mosque is a humble affair: constructed of large grey bricks, it is very unassuming from the outside and inside is inlaid with a worn-out green carpet and its walls decorated with amateurishly painted Qur’anic verses. As I step inside I notice the warm scent of musk and sandal wood, a much better olfactory reception than I have been expecting. Contrasting with the relative light provided by the moon outside, here it is pitch black. After a brief struggle with a torch in one hand and blankets in another, I prepare the closest thing to a bed that I can muster and at 8p.m. I decide that I must try to get some sleep.


When I get to it at 3a.m., I find that I have been trapped in sleeper’s limbo, having spent the past seven hours turning incessantly in search of that elusive comfort spot and, later on, in the throes of confused images. I open my eyes and there is nothing but total darkness. Thoughts begin to populate my mind, recollections of the past few hours of tortured sleep. Did I actually attempt to masturbate when I first settled in under the blanket or was it just a dream? I begin to wonder if men have masturbated inside mosques before, and whether this is the most serious profanity one can perform. The idea intrigues me, and I seriously contemplate entering the unwritten book of history:


On December 30, 2011, Mohammed Abouelleil masturbated inside A Mosque built in the 11th Hijri Century (17th Century gregorian) on the peak of Mt. Sinai. He was the first man to do so and has rightfully reserved a place in basest Hell.


But I abstain; too messy.


I fold the blankets and decide I will spend the remaining hours of darkness outside. I am still the only person at the peak, apart, that is, from the Bedouin who vanished into the cove. I settle next to the chapel, wrap myself up as best as I could, and finish off the fruit that I have left. Only half an hour has passed and the cold has, again, found its way to my skin. I shift around and wrap the blankets snugly around my legs. By 4a.m. I can see quivering, flickering dots of light moving slowly in the darkness that envelops the side of the mountain; constellations of pilgrims making their way up to witness the sunrise. This means that I have, at the most, two hours before the end of my isolation. I feel that I am on a mission searching for something that I cannot define or conceptualise. And I feel that my mission is drawing to a close. I resign, my mind blank, to the silence and the cold, and descend into a state of semi-sleep…


I am woken up to the sound of foreign tongues. I can hear German, Spanish, and some East Asian language. There are at least one hundred people on the summit. They have all arrived together and their head-lights are still on. Just before 6.a.m. loud Spanish religious POP music bellows from what must be a portable CD or Tape player, and a large group of young Spaniards join in. The unmistakable rhythm of a mantra comes from a closed circle of East Asians, perhaps Malaysian or Indonesian. In the strong winds on the summit, a young man nearby struggles to find the right page in a Hebrew text. Right next to me a couple huddle together in a single sleeping bag. All are patiently awaiting the sunrise. The anticipation infects me and I find myself gazing East. Light breaks, and all have their cameras ready to capture the moment. The sunrise will be filtered through a hundred Japanese lenses to the retinas eagerly waiting on the other side. Ten minutes pass, twenty, and the sun remains hidden behind thick grey clouds. A few minutes later it begins to rain.


On my way down the mountain I take the other route, the Steps of Penance – 3000 rocks laid by a monk as atonement for a sin only three people know about. It continues to drizzle and the air is cold and crisp, astonishingly refreshing. Although no reason for this comes to my mind, I am unexpectedly euphoric and positive. I embrace the mood I am in. As I negotiate the uneven, sometimes dangerous, rocks I recall a warning given to me by a Bedouin who saw me embark on the beginning of the Steps of Penance an hour ago: be careful, he said, two months ago a Russian went down this route and lost his way; it took us a week to find him, dead. The image of a dead man lost in the midst of these ancient rocks keeps pinging in my mind. If I die here my father will not know about it. He will be spared the pain, devastation and guilt. If I die here my father will not care. If I laugh or cry, if I have another child or get married, if I kill someone or save ten, my father will not be around. I have come here hoping that loneliness will reveal something to me, and I am leaving realising that there is nothing to be revealed. If father is a commandment, I now have one less reason to do the right thing.


Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed 2011



To Untie or Knot (and a change of opinion)

And this is what, now, seems to me an uncharacteristic ode to individualism. what had gone in to me at the time? I was probably too fed up with Mut; now I am not: in fact I am nostalgic. Which goes to show that intellectual positions can be emotionally laden too !

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Place: Dakhla Sports and Social club

Time: 10pm to 3am

Dress Code: What’ever

Setting and Behaviour: A rectangular green space with a small platform in the North-Eastern corner. Six, long cables dotted with small light bulbs (that go on and off in some sort of coordinated medley of colours) radiate from a central, wooden mother-pole to daughter-poles at the periphery of the green space. You will find several rows of wooden benches arranged in two piles; if you are a woman please occupy the left, otherwise bear right. Remember that early on in the night, many of the benches on the left side will already be occupied by large groups of women. Boys may clamour around the edge of the wedding space and wait for events to unfold. Men, of course, will be dressed in unassuming, unpretentious clothes, but women may make some effort: the obligatory veil of course, but with a tighter waist, a sized down dress, a slightly smaller skirt than the usual (you get the point: a subtle increase in bodily definition). Teenage boys are allowed, as long as they limit their participation to sustained visual ogling of the arriving females, hungry eyes optional.

Entertainment: A band will arrive by 11pm. They will jam for what seems an indefinite amount of time, and there will be a perpetually lengthening singer-is-arriving-moment, for him to actually arrive when you no longer care he does. Massive speakers will dominate each corner and deliver extremely loud music. The band will consist of two tablas, a dof, re2, keyboard, and an unbelievably camp compere who will address you, dear attendees, and urge the women to deliver some zaghareet. We assure you that the band will be more sophisticated than any you’ve heard at other weddings, a fact that may pass unnoticed in the infinite reverberations of the sound system.

Preparation: Unless you are one of the seven V.I.P.s (small-town, insignificant – in the bigger picture – local politicians) who will be sitting at the back and served tea, no drinks or anything will be on offer. You are advised to bring your own cigarettes. If you think that Beer or Hashish will be going around then you are seriously lost: this is Dakhla not ‘Ard El-Lewa you idiot. Notwithstanding the absence of drugs, you will notice five teenagers hanging at the back of the wedding looking seriously wasted. Do not rejoice, this will not be the effect of Hashish; look around for empty pill-blisters. We advise either that you leave any sense of music appreciation at home or wear extremely effective ear-plugs: the band will play continuously for several hours and with such frenzy that – preparations bypassed – we guarantee absolute manic-excitement to infect everyone at the wedding.

Key Moment: Just after 11pm two cars will arrive, yes two (it’s a double wedding), bedecked with flowers and colourful ribbons and preceding them will be a gang of motorcycles, all vehicles honking their horns rhythmically. The couples will slowly descend and will be immediately surrounded by numerous individuals. A man will take charge of an extremely unusual small box – perhaps the size of a Nokia-6600-Phone Box – that emits a tiny firework with each shake. The necessity of shaking the box means that the firing trajectory will correspond to the movement-range of the shoulder joint thus increasing the risk of a firework launching horizontally with potential loss of eyes and other facial bits. Be careful.

Warning: We hope you enjoy today’s wedding and entertainment. Please remember that the groom must not be compromised on his entry-night; any person seen shaking the groom’s hand will have his palms examined for suspicious traces of Musk, Saffron, and – God forbid -Deer’s Blood.

The Dakhla Diaries (2) : Making Friends

Men, men, men, everywhere, nothing but men.
Dark and tanned, short and tall, toned and plump, mostly moustached.
We bond over caffeine and cigarettes, talking endlessly, telling stories, and making sense of a senseless world. Justifying the unjustifiable and debating the local cosmology.
My prick, he argues, is subject to my moods, my whims, and nothing else, NOTHING else.
His opponent attacks: Be wary of pig, it faggotises your prick.
People, I finally say, surely you can be tied to a Jinni, who turns your dick to a weenie.
And on your wedding night, the night of your coronation, instead of Salaheddin you become an embarrassment. Ironic.

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, slow to hell

Back in the fifties when the modern political entity that is Egypt gained its independence from combined British/Monarchic rule, the army assumed control of the country, and consistent with the burgeoning nationalism that was to plight our nation for the foreseeable future and the paranoia that nationalism inevitably engenders, military airports were constructed outside most Egyptian towns. Asyut airport is one of them. The first leg of my journey to Dakhla was an hour’s flight from Cairo to Asyut. It’s not really an airport, rather a landing strip and a small building that houses the military intelligence office. As I took my first step outside the building I was accosted by an Asyuti man offering his limousine services to any destination I desire. As expected he was annoyingly savvy and obviously disingenuous, littering his non-stop barrage of words with statements like, “we just want to serve you ya Basha”. In any case I expected this to be the last encounter with the sweet-talking Nile-dwelling Egyptians who usually want to charge you as much as they can, while making you feel – all the time – that they are doing you a service. The people of the Western desert are famous for their down-to-earth nature, their directness and honesty, and that was where I was heading.
Between my present spot and Dakhla, however, lay 450 km of scorching heat and cracked asphalt: the famous darb-al-arba’een road. Up till the late 1800s, so the story goes, this desert track was a major caravan trade route connecting Darfur in Southern Sudan with Kharga Oasis and beyond to the Nile-valley. Today it’s frequented by the dilapidated buses of the ‘Upper Egypt Transport Company’, and the occasional private vehicle. The journey was hell. I was reassured, initially, when I read on the information board at the bus station that the service is air-conditioned. It turns out the A/C is switched on the first and last half hours of the journey (to save fuel?). This meant suffocating heat in the midst of fleas and the occasional whiff of smelly feet and other more problematic aromas. Adding to the general feeling of torture a young child vomited in the corridor of the bus in the first half hour, and we had to live with that for the next five. To add pain to insult, my fellow commuters were reluctant to open the windows, under the excuse that dust and sand may enter the bus.

I arrive to Mut at 5pm. The town was still drowning in the lethargy of the intense heat; most of the shops were closed. I sip a tea at a coffee shop near the bus stop, a couple of other patrons were sitting dazed in the shade, none seemed interested in this stranger suddenly in their midst. I walk off searching for a hotel. An old man with an unbelievably creased face points out the ‘Mut rest house’, “the rooms there are five pounds”, he reassures me, “just beyond it you’ll find ‘Al-Forsan’ hotel, but it’s very expensive, they charge twenty-five pounds for the room”. Notwithstanding the old-man’s retort, I head to Al-Forsan, somewhat surprised at how cheap it is. Checking in was immediate; I throw my bags on one of the beds, peel my wet clothes of my flea-bitten skin and lie naked on the bed under the noisy ceiling fan, and I couldn’t help thinking, “what have I done?”

Where have all the Zeros Gone?

A note on our visit to the Southern part of Africa

“Give me feefty!” the wizened ten year old boy announced, “I am huun’gry.” The haggling process was now at a critical stage. In fact, it was over. But in typical Mozambiquean style, it never is over. Settling on a price, handing over the money and receiving the goods are not sufficient indications to the Mozambiquean child-cum-man trader that we should now part. It is quite a strange strategy, after all, what is it that makes these children think that after the business transaction is done, appealing for more money – and sometimes shirts or shorts – will lead to more being given? Sympathy? Maybe. Or is it that they are irresistibly cute, ‘cutishness’ that has no equivalent in the civilized world?

In any case, R had a slightly larger soft spot for these kids than I did. She obviously appreciated the necessity of haggling, even more the mutual expectation of haggling. But unlike me, she – sensibly – regarded haggling as a means (evil) to an end where as I had slowly grown accustomed to haggling to the point of enjoying it in and of itself. At certain moments in the haggling process I would see her bargaining defenses collapsing and from beneath emerges an irresistible ‘her’ that is exceptionally intoxicating to watch and that, naturally, brings the haggling process to an immediate halt. 

It must have been the bizarreness of the situation: Here we are legs folded and crossed on the concrete floor and in front of us a beautiful ten year old boy selling us hand-crafted ash trays and other tourist paraphernalia. Your first impulse, in fact the only natural impulse is to play with them, make them laugh, strike a conversation, the kind of special conversation that emerges when an adult actually talks to a child as they would talk to some one they respect. But no. You are expected to take that child in all seriousness, stifle your laughs, hide your smiles and haggle to the last twenty meticals! But when the absurdity of the situation reaches magnanimous proportions, when I find myself engaged in a heated haggle over a few coins, R would come to the rescue. She would do or say a small thing that would remind me that the person in front of me is a child, a ten year old boy.

The manifestations of poverty are significantly more intriguing than its causes. These young children have been irretrievably indoctrinated in to seeing tourists as a money-source (which, relatively speaking, they are). Despite my numerous attempts at playing with these children, I failed. It was almost impossible to divert their attention from their desire to sell you something and when you did you could only have a few snippets of conversation. Only once was I able to strike a personal conversation with an older boy and that was cut short by the re-emergence of money. He was seventeen and earlier in the day he had sold me a hand-made necklace. He approached me while I was sipping a cold beer in the sun.

“My friend, how are you. Would you like a smoke?”
“A smoke?” I asked.
“Yes, a big cigarette”.
“Oh.. No thanks I don’t smoke much weed, don’t like it anymore.”
“You know, me too. My friends smoke all the time but I don’t do it. It’s not good for you.”
“Good. So, tell me Fernando, do you go to school?”
“Yes, I finish this year”
“And what plans do you have next?”
“I will continue selling bracelets and other things but I want to work at one of the bars or restaurants here in Tofo.”
A bunch of younger boys approached us and asked him if he wants to play cards with them. He agreed and at that the four of them sat in a circle on the sand, took out a few hundred metical notes from their pockets, a deck of cards and let the games begin! I watched for a few minutes while the little hands exchanged money and, immediately, I was left out as the glimmer of the potential wins paralysed their social curiosity.

Back in the capital, Maputo, the situation was different. We certainly remained sources of money but over here it was less personal and more threatening. A brief look at the city map reminds you of the post-colonial struggle for identity and direction and the strange choices that countries make. Most major streets and avenues were named after long-lost communist figures: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Kwameh Nukromah. Among the crumbling colonial buildings and the fading avenues exists a make-shift city were, during the day, street vendors are scattered along the pavements and, when night falls, the streets are deserted save for several small groups of officially dressed men on patrol donning guns and a bizarre attitude. We had the luck of running in to a threesome. A minor traffic offense was described as a “big mistake” and we were given the choice of going to the police station or accepting the benevolence of the security guards and buying my license back for 2 million (sorry 2000, the government has removed three zeros from the almost worthless Mozambiquean currency to give the illusion of de-flation) meticals. Upon declaring that we would rather go to the police station (apparently the right move) the offer was immediately reduced to 1000 meticals, which we paid.

The thing that bugged me the most was not the money, not even supporting corruption, it was, rather, the fact that these men who have just robbed us have an arsenal of justifications to soothe their conscience. Rob me, God damn it, but do feel bad about it! Humans must react to poverty. I was always amazed at the indigent old man bundled up on a Cairo pavement extending his arm with the last ounce of motivation for a few pounds that would barely take him through to the next day. While on the other extreme you find the scheming, sycophantic government official who effectively robs you at every opportunity to do the job he was employed to do. I would give money to the old man anytime. Poverty does not justify moral weakness, nor should it automatically lead to it. The kids on the Tofo beaches understood this very well, but for how long?

Back at Tofo I had the opportunity to meet a thirty year old, Franco, who I presume started his life like the numerous kids scattered along the beach, selling bracelets and the like to tourists. We met at a beach bar where, initially, we thought he is simply one of the patrons. I bought him a beer and he initiated a conversation with R. Moments later he was spreading out his hand-made paintings in an attempt to sell her a few. From that night onwards he tried, in different ways, to foster a relationship that he, outwardly, was at pains to present as a friendship yet at every opportunity he was trying to get something from us. It was pitiful and annoying yet all the same endearing. I guess we are money-sources after all. The numerous associations and heavy baggage that we carry with us – not just through the colour of our skin (strictly speaking I am not black, Beige maybe?) or the style of our clothes but by the very fact of our presence in a resort that a select few Mozambiquans can afford to visit – immediately places us in a fortified category, one where there is limited hope of escape. At times I thought it is pretentious, even downright arrogant of me to demand human contact with people who spent the best part of their childhood scourging for money. The limits of contact must be drawn somewhere and there are things that even the most good-willed strategy will not alleviate: I did not fully comprehend the world of Franco because if I did I would have not felt annoyed by him and warmth might have been the predominant emotion.

The atmosphere a few miles away, in Swaziland, was different. It was certainly less poor than Mozambique or at least that was the general impression I got. On top of the highest peak at Mlilwane nature reserve we had the opportunity to hear Knowledge, our guide for the evening, give us pearls of wisdom. He was a thirty-something black man clad in safari gear. “My name is Knowledge,” he proudly declared when we asked him with suspicion despite a clear name badge, “there are only two of us, and the other one is dead.” The King of Swaziland has 22 wives, he began. Each year, sometime in the beginning of September, a major festival is organized where the majority of eligible Swazi women perform a ‘reed dance’ for the King’s sharp eyes. The chosen one becomes the King’s next wife. Knowledge is single, as he volunteered to tell us while asserting that he, too, can have more than one wife. Alas poor knowledge; he is single as he can’t afford even one wife. Twenty cows is the required dowry, evidently an enormous financial feat for a poor park ranger. 

So, when our rules and values cease to match reality, what do we change? There are eight million young Egyptian men and women who want to get married but cant. On one hand you have the highly unrealistic demands made by the bride’s family; a huge dowry, a flat and so on. On the other you have a political and economic situation that makes it virtually impossible for a young university graduate to find a job, let alone afford a flat. The result? Hordes of deprived, unfulfilled young adults with no jobs and zero future prospects. Societies are like stubborn mules, whose structure is maintained through power and where change is resisted mainly to protect the status co. It is painful to watch a society paralysed by its own contradicting commitments. And here I am thinking of Egypt. The required social change that should accompany the faded capitalism imposed on this country never occurred. Holding on to old traditions and forging – as a means of resistance – a new value-system loosely based on Islam, the people of Egypt are, to use a well trodden saying, stuck between a rock and a hard place. The problem does not lie in whatever values the people collectively hold but in the obvious mismatch between those values and the reality of life in 21st century Egypt. Again, we must ask, what do we change?

I suppose history shows that people only change their values and the ‘rules of engagement’ after too much had been lost already. They generally tend to keep on maintaining the status co at any expense. And that maintenance is invariably achieved through brute force and power. Wouldn’t the Egyptian predilection and expectation for conformity be just an instance of such power? Wouldn’t, in a much more obvious way, the blatant White South African racism be a major exercise of power? The South African experiment shows that there is nothing to be lost in opening up the dams and accommodating to reality, nothing but the slogans, guns and oppression of the power-wielders. The difference in Egypt lies in the fact that the oppressors and the victims are one and the same; ever present and ever contradictory in the collective consciousness of this land.

Heading East, stuck West, hovering in the middle

Heathrow airport. Terminal 2. An hour or so before my flight. I am sitting in a pub, smoking a cigarette and sipping a pint of warm beer. There are too many distractions in the place, a sort of attack on you senses. From the mismatch between striped multicolor carpet / vinyl floors / grey tiles, to the combination of incessant chatter and a playlist from hell. Add to that the relentless anxiety like a small hamster running inside me, the fact that V. will be on the same flight from Paris to China, the presentation I am due to deliver on Sunday infront of a huge crowd, the impending move from Canary Wharf to Brixton once I get back from Beijing and you can begin to imagine the state of mind I am in. That being said I remain excited about the prospect of seeing a new place. China. The far east has always been, to me, an area on the map – at the far left hand side of the entertaining illustration of the world continents. My knowledge of the far east has never really exceeded all the well known stereotypes: Japan, or at least tokyo is a place of technological excess, computer animated youths with squeaky voices completely mesmerised by Western culture. Thailand, a heaven of magnificent beaches and Islands and not so magnificent women-for-sex. Korea, well, a defiant nation in the North, still somehow hanging on to ideologies of a bygone time – and making many enemies in the process – and a South that took part in the world cup in 2002. China has always managed to evade any stereotypes. Well, apart from the fact that Chinese goods are invading the whole world, including Egypt where you can actually buy Chinese made Ramadan Lanterns, complete with Ramadan folklore sounds bellowing from their poor quality embedded speakers and small flashing lights. Some of them can engage in primitive mechanical motion. But China still evades stereotyping. I know its a massive nation, I know they have draconian rules and legislations. I know that until recent times (maybe even now?) peoples liberties were seriously infringed upon, including intellectual freedoms. In my mind I have an image of China as a huge land with extended areas of grasslands and desert dotted by inconceivably dense metropolitan cities. I seem to be drawn more to the empty expanses. I have an image of Chinese peasants, living decades back along the path of history, tending to their land, supported and maintained by powerful beliefs and traditions extending thousands of years back in time. Somehow this image makes me feel calm. But I also wonder, how are China’s deserts like? Do they have an equivalent of the Bedouin and Berber tribes that exist in the Western desert and Sinai in Egypt? I am not sure my time there will be sufficient to quench my curiosity for the country and its people. But, more vitally, how far am I willing to go – in my intense desire to escape the cage of predictability – how far am I willing to go? Too far, beyond return, or to stay right here, where I am.