June 17, 2012

On Travel Companions

Filed under: On books and reading,Uncategorized — by AmiraAK @ 1:53 am

For years I have travelled with three dear travel companions: The Prophet, Letters to a Young Poet and Le Petit Prince. I always also carry my little pocket Quran. Today at Shabana’s funeral, I realized how little I have read – or listened to – Quran since I got here. When I left for the UK, I only took my Letters to a Young Poet, and I have needed to go back to it twice in the past few months.. Today’s play on Gibran brought back a whole era of my life where I lived and breathed Gibran. Today’s funeral, yesterday’s talk at the City Circle, my new circle of friends and the Thursday Threshold meetings have made me realize how much of Rumi I used to read and have forgotten. His wisdom was a true guide and a pathway into my soul.

What is it that has happened? Have I outgrown my travel companions? Do we ever outgrow our books?? Have I suppressed my feelings and emotions so much these past years that I have eliminated the very words that give me solace when I travel, when I experience a new beginning, when I make a new friend, when I feel the need for company, or when I just want to share a part of me with someone. And for what? For a relationship that didn’t work, or a job that took up all my time, or simply because life now robs us of precious moments when we can read and reflect and spend time with a friend reading passages and poems and discovering new realms together.

It is these words that made me who I am.. that reminded me constantly of my humanness.. I feel devoid now, and empty.. simply not me. And I long to be me again.. I long for Rilke and Gibran and for the little prince to be by my side again.. my companions who made me feel that there is still some humanity in this insane world we’re living in.


February 4, 2010

Books, Books, Books

Filed under: On books and reading,Uncategorized — by AmiraAK @ 12:32 pm

I love this time of the year.. December and January… in December there used to be the AUC holiday book fair where we would save up money all year round and then buy lots of books at great prices, and January was the month of the Cairo International book fair where needless to say many long visits would result in piles and piles of books.  We would start the year with many new acquisitions that would last us many months ahead. 

This year our enthusiasm for the Cairo Book Fair has diminished for several reasons, among them the abundance of bookshops around Cairo, the availability of books everywhere, the amount of unread books we have at home and the lack of time to read them and various other reasons.  Nevertheless, the temptation of going to the fair is something we cannot resist, and this week has been an extremely happy one for me in terms of books and book hoarding.

I went to the fair yesterday and bought a few Arabic books: Mourid Barghouthy’s new novel, Wulidt Honak, Wulidt Hona (I was Born There, I was Born Here), Ahmed El Eseily’s Ketab Maloush Ism (A Book Without a Name), Khairy Shalaby’s Awwelna Walad, and a few colouring and children’s books for the kids at home.  I also got a book of verb conjugation in Spanish – lawazem el espanol yaani – and a Dennis the Menace book of puzzles to keep me busy when I’m in a puzzly mood. 

I have also been mooching lately ( and I have been fortunate enough this past week to have relieved myself of some extra books I had at home (Nick Hornby’s Slam and The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, Martin Amis’ Lucky Jim, The Language of Others and Jostein Gaarder’s The Ringmaster’s Daughter.  I also happily received quite a few books: White Teeth by Zadie Smith an almost brand new copy! Life on the Refrigerator Door, True Pleasures: a Memoir of Women in Paris, Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down and Ji gave me an extra Spanish book on top of those, a poetic study from different writers and poets commemorating Cervantes.  Last month I also paid a visit to Virgin Megastore and bought a couple of books that were on sale: Amelie Nothomb’s Loving Sabotage and Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim’s Parallels and Paradoxes (two totally paradoxical books I must say!). 

I have also mooched Out of Africa and I’m waiting for it.  I just discovered that there are some very significant and famous books that I haven’t read and never bought and never actually thought of buying such as Out of Africa and The Remains of the Day!  maybe because the films were so superb.  I mooched Out of Africa and someone has accepted to send it.  I will probably mooch The Remains of the Day too and Wicked and a few other books I never thought of buying or I don’t feel like spending money on, then I’ll be content for the rest of the year.

October 13, 2009

The Challenge

Last Sunday I attended a presentation on a hike that an Egyptian woman did up Mount Kilimanjaro last August.  The presentation was organized by Sahara Safaris and was meant to share the experiences of two hikers, Hesham and Nadia, two regular people, with no previous experience and with no exceptional fitness either.  Nadia, a mother of four, had done very little practical exercise before let alone any safaris.  Hesham, likewise, had only gone on a few safaris and only worked out for 10 weeks before going.  Of course they took precautions and medication and worked on endurance fitness rather than high-impact workouts, did the research, planned carefully and embarked on their journey.

The presentation that included maps, pictures, examples of gear and loads of stories shared, also benefitted from the presence of Omar Samra, the first Egyptian ever to have summited Mount Everest.

My purpose here is not to report the presentation.  It is to talk about the amount of positive energy that was available in the room that day.  The stories inspired us and filled us with energy, determination and a conviction that anything we put our minds to, we can achieve and accomplish with a little bit of effort and perseverance and simply by putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one step at a time.

Nadia, Hesham, Mabrouk and Omar talked about challenging ourselves, and Omar especially mentioned that challenges push human concepts.. in the sense that there are things that we never thought were possible, and then along comes someone who achieves that or accomplishes it, and so we discover that it is possible and this leads us to challenge ourselves in different and more diverse ways.  Things that we deemed impossible push us to do more.

One thing I liked was how Omar measures his success or determination: by the number of people who try to discourage him or tell him that he’s doing something crazy or dangerous.

From what Mabrouk and everyone discussed that day, I truly believe that each one of us has their own challenge, no matter how big or small, in their eyes or in the eyes of others.  Even if it is walking from Abbasia to Tahrir or from Cairo to Alex, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or summiting Everest as was mentioned.  And no matter how long it takes to prepare for it, one thing we should all take out of all this is Polé Polé, (slowly, slowly).

I’ve been thinking about this and about our need to challenge ourselves.. and maybe my personal challenge won’t be to climb the highest or smallest mountain in the world, or to do skydiving, nor even deep sea diving (though that’s not a bad challenge).  I believe that each one of us has areas of interest and desires that one would like to accomplish if given the chance.  We should set a goal and go forth trying to achieve it no matter how much time it takes.  I think one of the goals I can set for myself would be to speak Spanish fluently and I could challenge myself to do it in a certain period of time.. no matter how much work I have, and no matter what other things come in the way of this.  I don’t have to follow the regular classes that I take.  I could go further.  I could challenge myself to read at least 15 books this year.  Substantial books that is, or books I have been postponing for ages; really set a time frame and schedule and not give in to outings and TV series (and that’s not an easy task I have to say).

I could challenge myself to exercise and lose weight.. now that’s a big challenge!  We all have great intentions of exercising and of becoming fit, but if we truly challenge ourselves.. and not for the sake of weight loss, but in my case for the sake of health and for a professional position I am aspiring for, then I believe that would be a worthwhile challenge.  I don’t have to climb high mountains or throw myself into dangerous waters to feel that I have accomplished something worthwhile.  But there has to be a thrill and determination to achieve the goal we set for ourselves, no matter what diversions and how many people tell us it’s not worth it.

Nadia, Hesham and Omar, I truly salute you. And with all my heart, I hope you continue to inspire people around you and encourage them to go beyond the limits they thought they had.  I have now rethought my idea of vacations and the way I spend my time.  Lazing on a beach or staying at home, isn’t the way I would want to switch off and recharge my battery.  I need to engage in something that takes away my whole being (heart, soul and body) and immerses it into a totally new and exhilarating experience.  And I need to start working on that now!

August 12, 2009

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me.. what your sacrifice was for..

Filed under: On books and reading,Quotes — by AmiraAK @ 4:01 pm

The minute someone mentions A Tale of Two Cities I remember the opening lines of this amazing book: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—

How can one not fall in love with this?  How can one not fall in love with Dickens, his style and his colourful complex characters?  How can one not fall in love with A Tale of Two Cities and Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay? 

Carton’s sacrifice and his sweet heartbreaking words at the end of the story:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

These two characters, together with Madame Defarge sitting in that shop knitting the names of those who will be executed, will remain with us forever.  The ingenuity of a book such as this is one where the characters are persons.. people you recall from your past.. like ghosts from your childhood. 

I think A Tale of Two Cities will be the next book I read.  I’m nostalgic.  I want to read it again in detail. 


I am also in a Les Miserables mood.. On my way to and from the coast last weekend, I felt a deep urge to listen to the songs of the musical, and with it go through the whole story again.. again the sacrifice, persistence and perseverance, faith in fighting for a cause you believe in.. and utter love.. How can one hunt a person down for so long over a loaf of bread that he stole?  The sacrifice of the people who made the revolution happen..

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more

The musical in my opinion is a masterpiece.  If it were still running in London or Broadway, I would still go, even though I’ve watched it twice already.  I wasn’t going to put it all up, but this is such a beautiful song; it always, always brings shivers down my spine and throughout my whole body:

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about `tomorrow’
And tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner
They could see a world reborn
And they rose with voices ringing
I can hear them now!
The very words that they had sung
Became their last communion
On the lonely barricade at dawn.

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me
That I live and you are gone.
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.
There’s a pain goes on and on.

Phantom faces at the window.
Phantom shadows on the floor.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.


The two volumes I have of Les Miserables cannot stay on my bookshelf unread much longer.  I will have to bring them down and read them sooner rather than later. 

August 6, 2009


Filed under: On books and reading,Uncategorized — by AmiraAK @ 10:48 am

Every once in a while a book comes along that touches you deeply.  Farag is such a book.  I was hesitant on Goodreads to give it a four star rating, “really liked it” or a five star rating, “it’s amazing”.  Because I can’t really say it is amazing.  I really really liked it.  But it deserves a five rather than a four, but I can’t treat it like a book where I’d say, ‘oh wow, man, that was such a read, I’m thrilled!’ kind of thing.  It’s subtle.  It’s simple and it can seem like any story of a family in Egypt living in the 50s, 60s, 70s and up to our present time.  But it’s more than that.

The author always brings in a part of him/herself into their writings.   Radwa Ashour often mentions that, and she always brings parts of herself into her writings, even when they seem purely fictional, though Ashour’s writings are never purely fictional.  How much is fictional, how much is autobiographical and how much of this happened to people she knew very well is not important.  If you know anything about this era, you will be able to pick out the bits and pieces you know to be close to home.

What I love about this book is that it lingers with me.  I didn’t read it in one shot which is nice because that way I kind of lived with it for a while.  I read a third of it on the plane to the US – a long flight – a third on my way back three weeks later, and a third three weeks after that.  I felt like Nada’s life story was close to me and I was following her life and that of her family as if I was visiting her while she was a child and growing up, and then I went to visit her later when she was going through her own youth and raising the boys and then afterwards when they had grown up and graduated from college, all the while the social and political events surrounding her and them provided the context to the story.

What moved me was a nostalgia to that era of student movements, to the story of Arwa, Siham, Hazem.. her father’s imprisonment, her own, Foucault, Durkheim, her visit to the prison that reminded me of Robben Island in South Africa, where the guides who take you around, are among the ones who were imprisoned, the faith these people had, their disillusionment..  When I first graduated and started working, I was a part of those stories.. I knew the people who had participated in the movements, who had been friends with Arwa, who had gone through the tribulations and turbulences of that era, I read the philosophical, psychological and historical theories related to that.  My feelings while reading the book was a nostalgia to those post college days when I was learning so much about my country through personal experiences that you never learn in books or in college or at school, and a nostalgia to have been a part of that movement, a part of that conscience or consciousness that has almost totally evaporated now.

Radwa Ashour’s writings are not just works of prose.  They’re not just novels and articles and stories.  They are ‘living’ writings.. they pulsate while you’re reading, you feel with the characters, the events, the descriptions of the surroundings and you live with them.  Long after the book is finished, you find yourself thinking of what you’ve read, you turn and see one of the characters walking in the distance, you hear a conversation, you sense a pang in your heart when you remember a certain something that happened.  You even sense feelings of pain, of regret, of happiness.. but most importantly, a feeling of being energized, a rendering of faith and of hope for change that could still happen if we really worked hard for it; if we really believed in it.  I was sitting there in the train with Nada in that final chapter and I could see her life passing before her eyes.  I felt I was there with her, like an alter self.. I’m not really.  My life is nothing like Nada’s, but I sometimes wish it had been similar.  I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had been a part of that era.  Through Nada’s personal experience, I get a glimpse of that and through Radwa Ashour’s beautiful style I become almost a part of it.

May 28, 2009

Small Discoveries

Filed under: On books and reading — by AmiraAK @ 11:59 pm

My greatest literary discoveries have been made browsing the shelves of libraries and bookshops at my leisure.  My favourite ever pastime, is roaming through the lines of shelves, left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, moving around here and there in no particular order.  My eyes passing softly reading title after title.. my fingers gently touching the different books, feeling the textures of the binding covers, looking at the titles, picking up a book and flipping through its pages, reading bits and pieces, putting it back on the shelf and moving to another shelf with other books.. other themes.. other colours.. covers of books usually are what attract me the most.. the design of the cover and its material, the title and its typset.. the author.. My greatest delight is discovering undiscovered treasures.. books that are not famous, those that are less known.. finding the shelves or piles that are randomly placed or that are uncategorized..

I discovered Letters to Young Poet that way, and of course all of Rilke’s works from then on were to me small discoveries of a great poet and a wonderful writer.  That tiny book, that I found almost buried in one of the hidden corners of the second floor of the AUC library and read almost completely while standing there next to the shelf, to me was a revelation.  The book was calling for me and I beckoned and read it all in one go.  That little dark red hard-covered book is one of those treasures closest to my heart.

Tonight, I made a new discovery!  I came to Kotob Khan for a coffee and to escape the toils of the week, to finish some work and to refresh my soul by being surrounded by books with the smell of coffee in the air.

Another of those bottom line shelves.. an enclosed area.. no particular categorical sign.. a mixture of books from Orhan Pamuk to Pope John Paul II to Murakami to Arab writers to Kundera to Stalin, nothing really grouping them together.. unshelved, uncategorized books so to say.

I see the title Jorge Luis Borges and pause for a moment.  I hesitate for a split second thinking, I should start reading Spanish works and I should start to become familiar with writers and poets like Borges and Marquez and Lorca.  I brush my thoughts aside reminding myself that I still have an endless number of books unread, cursing the fact that the latest book I have been carrying around with me for the past month is not even half read. 

I continue to browse the shelves.  There is no harm in browsing.  I stumble upon a tiny little grey-coloured book.. almost invisible in the midst of the larger titles.  A simple title With Borges by Alberto Manguel. The latter name not unfamiliar.  I pick the book up.  A little gem of no more than 70 pages, large enough print, 1.5 or double-spaced.  Thoughts of Rilke flow back into my mind.  The back of the book reads:

In Buenos Aires, 1964, a blind writer approaches a sixteen-year-old bookstore clerk asking if he would be interested in a part-time job reading aloud.

The writer was Jorge Luis Borges, one of the world’s finest literary minds; the boy was Alberto Manguel, who was later to become an internationally acclaimed author and bibliophile.

Now how can one move away from such a book.. from such a sentence? Borges was Blind!  What a discovery!  And he employed someone to read for him.. someone who became an acclaimed author. 

What luck.  What a coincidence that brings me here today. 

I look inside the book and start to read through the pages.  I put it to the side and go back to the Borges title I had come across a few moments before.  Selected Non-Fictions.  I learn that the greater part of Borges’ writing was not only in fiction and poetry but also in non-fiction prose.  Titles of essays that include, “the nothingness of personality” and “an investigation of the word” or “a profession of literary faith” or “a history of eternity”.  Film reviews and book reviews, from King Kong to Crime and Punishment to Faulkner and Huxley, Joyce and Wells. Lectures on Shakespeare, essays on Dante and prologues to a personal library… now how can one turn away from that?!

Not only that, the book is in a good clear type and on the thick recycled-type, what-do-they-call-it, acid-free? paper, with unevenly-cut pages on the side.  Simply breathtaking. The little book too is breathtaking.  The story of a friendship that develops between two huge literary figures talking about books and reading.. you delve into their minds, their personalities and how they think and feel and view the world..

I am happy with my discoveries.  I pick them up, gather my things, head to the cashier and proudly pay for my newfound treasures.

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