Academic Skills Post: NEVER be “Realistic”

study overload

I was at a workshop for post graduates; where keen masters and PhD students made the effort to come to hear some “gems of wisdom”, perhaps a secret or two about how to publish and get your work out to an interested audience. I sat and listened attentively to all the well meaning talks by people who were “experts” in the field giving very sound and reasonable advice. The result? A heavy spirited audience that I felt was completely discouraged. The only glaring exception to this was an incredibly inspirational talk from an academic who handed out examples of many unconventional publications she had spent the last 20 years engaged with.

This made me go back to all the workshops and seminars on what it would take to do a PhD. I remembered that along with the absolutely useful information I took away with me, there was this huge misconception communicated through repeated phrases such as “doing your PhD is an incredibly lonely pursuit”, “your family and loved ones are very likely to become frustrated and angry at your disappearance out of their lives”, “often, a PhD is an incredibly depressing journey”. I wasn’t sure where this was all coming from and as I took what I was hearing as gospel – it was, after all, coming from the mouths of experts – I prepared for doom, a decease, a journey into darkness… but then, I discovered the most incredible thing!! That doing this PhD, was not walking into a tomb, contrary to expert advice, in fact, quite the contrary. The three years of my PhD so far have been the busiest, most challenging, most stimulating, most sociable years of my life – and this is coming from the loudest girl in the class from nursery to high school!.

I once spoke with someone very dear to me and I told her that I wish someone had told me about mailing lists when I was an undergraduate. I would have gone to conferences, presented papers, networked etc. and I went on to recommend a conference she should attend. She started, “I can’t, because…. ” and she went on to convincingly present a logical list of all the reasons why is was absolutely inconceivable for her to attend, let alone present, at this conference. This made me so angry! I was so frustrated for her and for myself and for the thousands others who are so restricted and limited by what professional, reasonable, experienced people tell them about the limitations of everything! Unwittingly, and I know this is done with no sinister intention, these people have helped generations stifle their curiosity, their hope, their drive for achieving beyond their dreams, or even dreaming itself, for fear of being ridiculous in their over ambition.

It was then that I discovered something new about myself. I was unrealistic. It was perhaps my greatest asset. If I had been realistic, I would have stopped at first year university when I failed. I failed because I did not have the skills and tools to take me through university. I struggled through my entire undergraduate degree – yes, I started over, and through various personal problems and limitations, I passed with a not so great honours degree. Again, if I had been realistic, I would have said, “Well done Nelly, you’ve done well to get this far, now pack your trunk and off to the circus, it’s a miracle you’ve got this far, now go and do something suitable and in line with your achievements and skills”. Did I do that? Not on your Nelly! I went right back to uni, to the one professor who believed in me and signed up to a Master in Laws degree (which meant I would have to sit more exams than I had to if it were a MA or MSc). and guess what, I got a distinction in my Master’s dissertation!

Now I’m doing this PhD, the same thing happened. During the first year, where YES, I admit I had to put my head down and just get on with the literature review, meaning lots of libraries, I made friends there every time, invited and got invited by fellow students, in the same and different fields and even got asked out twice by fellow geeks 🙂 – and this was the loneliest part!! Three years on, I am teaching, for the third year, in three different universities, I’ve been asked by a university in Germany to guest lecture. In terms of publishing, I have a paper in a journal and a book chapter in an academic book to be published later this year, putting in a book proposal to publish my literature review and a quite a few other things in the pipeline, including being a guest editor on three special edition journals. Conferences, where I encourage you all to go to as many as you can, have also been important and I’ve been invited to be a key note speaker at a few events, including one for the United Nations, in a panel at the AAG (the Association of American Geographers Conference), presented papers, organising sessions all the way up to the end of the year. I declared this year in my PhD, after coming back from my fieldwork, the Year of Academic UnRealistic Activities. I also write in a blog that has reached the hearts of many (50,000 readers) and I couldn’t be enjoying myself more in this academic sphere.

un tweet

As I listened to experts speak today I wondered whether it was the bitterness of their experiences, rejections, failures over the years that made them feel they were doing a service to others by cautioning them so much. They wanted the students to do well – that’s why they were there. But it was a replica of a situation where parents would try to discourage their children from taking risks. It’s well known that other parents, who do give their children that space to take risks and make choices, support them through the consequences, often grow to achieve great things. This made me think of my incredible supervisor Karen Wells, who guides me from afar, always there to give advice, but allows me the space to explore, make mistakes, take up every opportunity and sternly reminds me of my “practical” deadlines before they swoosh past me. That’s what I’ve needed.

So my advice to you, if you are an academic and you are still reading this, is as follows – the most important thing about doing this PhD is that you enjoy it! It’s an incredible time to research something you are passionate about, in the length of time you have to research it. A PhD is NOT the final stage or destination, it is simply training for a career as a researcher and so this makes it a space where you develop an academic identity and just like other aspects of identity, you can only form one as you make choices, celebrate achievements, feel the agony of things that haven’t gone so well, blur all the different you’s together, etc. If you aren’t enjoying it, then stop. Stop and find something better to spend the valuable heart beats that you’re giving away. It’s not a cliche, our time here is limited, no one has yet been able to trick life and stay alive for ever, and so while you’re in the game, be a happy winner, or be a cheerful loser, but don’t be a bystander waiting to hear what you can and can’t achieve from others.

Just before I leave you, I want to highlight the value of positive thinking. When someone puts forward an opportunity, or a suggestion, don’t start by saying “I can’t” and justifying why. Instead, say “Sure! How can I get it done?” This is what I’ve been doing, and you know what? It’s worked! I noticed the one speaker today that inspired me said she used her students for skills that she did not have the time to develop. Her language was different. She could have easily said “skills I don’t have”. But she respected her ability to do whatever she wanted if she dedicated enough time to it and we should be just the same!

Good luck! If I can do it, you sure as hell can!!

If you need any ideas on giving yourself a push to be unrealistic and want to know some of the things I did to publish, get in touch:

Personal Post: Frustration of Working with “Be Grateful” Charity Mentality

“A Kind Word is Better than a Charitable Deed Followed by Harm” The Holy Qur’an

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The Holy Bible

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” Mother Teresa

Many of you would have been following my excitement about getting Taghreed a birth certificate. Let me tell you what happened:

A couple got in touch after this blog was posted telling me they were happy to pay for the costs that would see Taghreed through the legal system. This was exciting for the chance this offered us to set a precedence of getting ID for children on the street without the presence of abusive parents. An appointment with the lawyer was set. Taghreed turned up with a social worker and one representative from the couple. Taghreed turned up with no documents, no idea of when/where she was born, what her parents marital status was, what her mother’s real name is and they faced the first hurdle; she could not sign a power of attorney because she had no ID! This caused great frustration to the lady paying for the lawyers time.

I realised a week later that I was “unfollowed” on twitter by the man who got in touch and when I wrote to him saying I hope all was well, this is an extract of what he wrote back:

“You associate yourself to a sad bunch of people…  [the meeting] went extremely bad because of you dealing with the matter in such an unprofessional way. When I originally contacted you, I felt a sense of importance in the case you presented. When my wife explained what happened in the meeting, I realised it was just smoke and mirrors and we both felt being lied to. There is no excuse for not bringing the file that was on the girl to the meeting. The fact that you have lawyers there and no one bothered to meet but the worker coming totally unprepared… well I’m speechless.”

I first want to talk about this very specifically, and then try and deconstruct some “myths” about working with street children.

I do not “associate” myself with anyone. I am a random person who did my research fieldwork in an NGO in Egypt with street children. This NGO, like others, does amazing, incredible, extremely valuable work with children who have endured incredible amounts of disadvantage. They are DEFINITELY NOT a “sad bunch of people”. They are, in fact, an incredibly dedicated, under valued, under paid, under trained bunch of people who believe in a cause that is unfashionable, disappointing and down right dangerous, often putting their lives at risk protecting the children they work with. I found this highly offensive.
The NGO do not have LAWYERS. They have one lawyer who works for the NGO’s legal affairs, not the children. Had you spent some time asking, this is  what you would have found out. I do understand it may be hard when you are a CEO of an international company, living in the most affluent parts of Cairo, to understand that local NGO’s, especially after Jan 25 are working against incredible odds to just feed their dependents and many months “owe” their staff their salary. When help was offered for this girl through the legal process, it was my fault, perhaps, to have not highlighted it was not about the money alone!
From the very first email I had with the lady who went to this meeting, I asked to follow up with the shelter manager, to which I was told off in an email and told that she was offering us a favour and would not chase! I definitely should have stopped at this point.

In a way, I am glad this has happened. It has highlighted the need to critically consider the idea of “charity”, of doing good, of getting involved, and of my responsibility to make sure I do not subject the children that have trusted me to encounter experiences that further victimise them. But before I move on, there is something that baffles me… The person writing said they felt lied to. I am so amazed by this. The complexity of the case, the contradictions, the insecurities and uncertainties of the lives of these children are so out of the ordinary that those who come into contact with them are so uncomfortable that they want to dismiss them as lies? Why would anyone lie to you? I am not sure I understand this bit – what is there to gain from you? What street child would want to go through the legal process just for fun?!

Let me now deconstruct some myths around my work with street children:

Myth Number One: Charity

Street children are not waiting for bread crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. It is important to note this very well before ever working with street children: if you are NOT going to be kind in your dealings with the kids, then it is far better you direct your charity elsewhere. I should have trusted my feeling from the start when the lady told me she was doing us a favour and would not chase. Working with street kids is a struggle, you are fighting for them, against them, with them, despite of them. That’s the reality you should come to them armed with, or like this couple, you will find an excuse to run away from them at the first disappointment.

Two amazing examples of this are my favourite Dr Hany Hamam, the generous and kind cosmetic surgeon who offered Taghreed free cosmetic surgery  a real example of the exact opposite of what these people were. He contacted me to offer his services, chased me with a few emails and every time Taghreed is due for a checkup or a followup operation, he tries to contact the shelter, emails me while I’m out of the country to chase. Someone who really wants to help. Then there’s Dr Ahmed who offered to help the kids who were bitten by the stray dogs. We organised an appointment with someone he asked a favour of, a top doctor in the field and the parents of the kids injured just didn’t turn up. Even though it was not my fault, I emailed him apologetically, his graceful response was “Anytime!! It’s important that the option for them is there”. This gracefulness, I realised, was something not to be taken for granted, and I am honoured that my path has made me encounter these people who feel responsible for the part they should play in a society.

Myth Number Two: Working with street children is gratifying/fulfilling

One of the hardest realities about working with street children is the bitter, painful statistic, that all who work with them try hard not to think of, there is only a 20% success rate in rehabilitating street children. I write about her a lot, Maya… a great example of how society, all parts of it, has deeply let her down; as a child and as a teenager. The NGO has been working with her since she was 7 years old. Maya too was a great disappointment to the social workers who invested so much time, hope, energy, belief in her to wake up one day and find her stir up a scene at the shelter, the same evening gone, now working in prostitution, abandoning her child. I spoke to many of the people working with Maya over the years. Most of them shrugged their shoulders and told me that what was important was that during her time in and out of the shelter, she knew she had them, that she knows, still, that they will be here. That it’s about what they can offer the kids, not what the kids offer them in terms of gratitude. It’s true that all over the world, rehabilitation of street children almost never works. Does that mean we should give up on them? Does that mean we should not give them the little we can afford them of the skills, love, material stuff that we can?

What did they expect Taghreed would turn up with? Taghreed trusts no one, she has never known her mother’s real first name!!! Yes, of course it’s disappointing. But to expect her to turn up suited up for your up market lawyer, with a team of her own lawyers and files and paperwork is naive.

Myth Number Three: Being a Professional

I am NOT a professional. I was quite taken aback by the claim that the couple who had offered their help had decided to withdraw it because of how “unprofessional” I had acted. I had to mull on this for a while. I wondered at which point I was ever deemed a professional in getting a case to the legal system. I am, after all, just an interested academic… an “expert” on street children that happened to write about my experiences working with them that has made this blog popular. I had left the “professional” world in 2010 when I left my role as Project Manager in a risk consultancy company.

While doing my research, I had to pass an ethics committee board to ensure that my work with vulnerable people would be done ethically and cause them and myself no harm. It took seven months to do this. When I finally got the ethics clearance and went to work with the children, I realised that my own ethics clearance would come if I were able to help these children in some way. I could not “pass” my PhD, get a job and then leave them and their stories behind. I am not a professional! I am not employed by anyone, I have not been paid to do my research, I have gotten myself into debt working with street children and I refuse to get paid for anything I write about the kids I have worked with – so definitely that description of me is inaccurate.

The other thing I want to mention is that I am totally thankful and overwhelmed by the response of people and every day I get many, many emails from offering help. I have to admit that I am not as good at dealing with this as I hoped I would be. Many of the people who have written have been able to help, one way or another, they just needed some contacts and got on with the helping themselves. I am not a professional volunteers manager, organiser or anything else of the sort. I have just used my accessibility to channel help towards the kids as it came in – at this point it’s all I can offer in an administrative sense. I am involved in academia and grass root work with the children themselves rather than a administrative professional associated with anyone/thing.


All being said and done and off my chest, I have to say that I have walked around today with the biggest lump in my throat. The irony is, I received this email of blame at the same time as my last class in a module on childhood where students wrote me a card, mostly calling me “inspirational”. When I spoke to a few of them about what that meant, they said it was about helping them discover what they could do for the children they work with. This is key. That is all I am trying to do here. That what I have set out to do is to raise awareness, to highlight the fact that we are lacking a sense of social, collective responsibility. I am not here to hold anyone’s hand while they do a good deed, to applaud them or to beg from them. At no point was this my intention and it will never be.

I owe Taghreed an apology for letting her experience another event of being let down and abandoned. And I guess for now I have no other way to help her but to bribe her father to come in and help us get her the ID.

Personal Post: Diary Entry for my Trip to Lebanon

I was amused at the gates boarding the plane to find that the Lebanese were more eager to get on it than were the Egyptians on my familiar Egypt Air flight. As soon as the gates were opened every single Lebanese got up rushing towards it, despite numerous requests by staff to remain seated till our rows were called for. Another major difference were the menus the stewardesses gave out, in 3 different languages, as they walked by with their drinks trolly that had an array of different types of alcohol to the layman economy class traveller I was. Perhaps if I wasn’t so ill I’d have indulged in the luxury. But, feeling under the weather as I was, I made do with the roasted peanuts that came with the pineapple juice- joining the tens of passengers with no personality who chewed away at nuts they probably didn’t want to eat, simply because we were handed them!

It’s the first time I’m not excited to travel, a mix between feeling extremely ill, not being well enough to go to teach my classes this morning, being behind with my work for the first time, being without Shariff for the first time since we’ve moved in, and being confused about my academic identity. But, with one hour and a half to go, I’m making a promise to myself not to be ungrateful. I am on am all expenses paid trip to Lebanon, to attend the Arab Council for Social Sciences conference, chosen from 120 candidates, I had a chance not only to speak about the street kids role in social movements, but to talk about the incredible work Manadeel Waraq gets up to for the children in egypt.

We’re landing now… Outside the window, the different colour flickering lights feel like its a country having a party – not one divided by war or ideology…

There’s something about airports, something universal about these completely different countries… I wonder what Margaret Mead would have made of that universality? Of the fact that there are the same tears and smiles and the same eager run-ups along the corridor, hugs and kisses and proclamations of how much each child had grown. It didn’t matter what country I was in, airports were the same.


My confusion between being an activist an academic became even more serious being surrounded by 70 other academics that I couldn’t easily start conversations with. A lot of the time it felt like a competition with how many big words you could string together in a sentence to be worthy of conversing with. But maybe that’s unfair, I was very ill, feeling unsociable and also trying to coordinate help for a 3 year old girl that we were told about who was in hospital in Egypt, burnt, tortured, broken boned, hurt very severely by her parents who got arrested after taking her to hospital claiming she had fallen from the second floor building. We were trying to work around a system that provided no foster care for abused children – we only have orphanages and shelters for street kids, but nothing for abused children. It was hard to keep up with papers on theoretical frameworks of inequalities and revolution when I felt I was so acutely helpless affecting real change.

But as the second day came about, I got some help for the girl, the rest of the Manadeel Waraq team got other help, following the “saving one child at a time” method, I eased up, started talking to fascinating academics and realised I could keep up the battle of bridging academia and activism, but I learnt how much the former was dependent on the latter for me. It was an amazing event in reality, bringing together so many disciplines in the region and discussing where research in the Middle East was going, and a refreshingly honest admission that it wasn’t the intellectuals bringing about change, but almost everyone else…

By this time I was well enough to go out for a walk… And I did………………….


I waited for them to come out of the sea and as they dried up and got dressed, I found my self making all sorts of assumptions about them, quickly trying to categories them in every box I knew, I hated myself for it. But I couldn’t stop smiling; the boys were radiating fun and enjoyment it was contagious… They were different to the boys fishing, the ones on roller blades, different to the boys here for an afternoon stroll with their parents. I couldn’t place them. It was only after they pulled out some stock from under a parked car to sell that I recognised them. They were so polite, so cleaaaan, so clean in fact that I heard myself saying, “7adretak tefl shaware3?” There was no other option for me than to address the child than that way! As we all laughed and started talking about and they told me that he and his friends lived on the street, but they got up to work early every day so they could afford this play time in the sea.

It was amazing watching the women run and do press ups in tight Lycra along the beach and though some men would stare, they were left to do their thing with no one invading their space, it was exactly at this point that I thought my earlier comparison and declaration of similarity with egypt become totally invalid. The fact that there wasn’t a cigarette butt on the street rendered me comparison invalid too.

I got lost on my way to “down town” that I never reached in the end. I ended up on the hills in roads parallel to the Qornish and immediately the vulgarity of poverty and decay was apparent, a painful contrast to the beauty of nature that the sea, just less than a 100 steps away had emanated. Homes made of cardboard and cloth and other cheap materials, but still, like the street boys I’d met earlier, so superiorly clean; something that made poverty itself vulgar, but not the homes, and definitely not the people.

I didn’t take any photos of the homes because I felt it would be a huge invasion of their privacy, these tucked away manifestations of struggle, though I would have been trying to capture this cleanliness I could not explain. Why were the poor on Lebanese streets so squeeky clean and not the Egyptian poor on the street? It threw up so many questions about dignity, valuing life and the self, having self esteem, perhaps… Or was it hope, hope that things were definitely going to get better so one had to look their best to greet good fortune when it came to them.


I’m sitting now on the Qornish writing this, I’ve decided that there is no way you can “travel the world” if you don’t stay in each place at least a few months, enough time to make friends, need to go to its hospital, pick up a friends child from its school, enough time to get to know you’re way around, to deconstruct all your previous notions of that place. I know so much has been written about this, so much analysis on space and culture, on deconstructing normativities, but each persons experience of it is different, each one of our consumption of space is unique, and at each destination I faced my own revolution and self discovery in relation to that space. I had to question too why I was far more comfortable talking to the street kids here in Beirut, than I was the academics in the conference I was supposedly more associated with..

I definitely want to come again, come back here as a person and not an academic, a distinction that has recently become very painful to acknowledge. The hills I can see in the distance are enchanting, something about them calls you to emerge yourself in them, even the air here is full of resilience and resistance, and a paradoxical calm… A city that could have fallen apart as a result of earthquakes, floods and civil war, it’s people’s ability to enjoy song and dance, perhaps like the Egyptians ability to joke, after each catastrophe, is perhaps what held this city together, keeping it clean, keeping it ready to embrace a change of fortune when it came.

INTERVIEW: Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges.

Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers

Egyptian Journalist - Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Egyptian Journalist – Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Nelly Ali sometimes carries a magic wand in her bag. She uses Twitter to fundraise for clothes for those kids (Cairo street children and mothers).

She’s a strong woman tirelessly fighting for the rights of street children and young homeless mothers to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

An International Childhood Studies PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London in the department of Geography, Environment and Development, Ali is currently working on an ethnography of street girls and child street mothers in Cairo, Egypt.

Her research interests are the prevalence of violence in the day-to-day life of street children and their experience of resilience, vulnerability, gender identity and sexuality.

Nelly Ali has recently been volunteering at Hope Village, a shelter for young street mothers in Cairo, where she developed deep relationships with the girls. She has been writing and tweeting about their stories and fears, keeping a promise that she would put a human face on the “problem” of street children and mothers living on the city’s streets, swiftly marginalized by society. Nelly Ali is a dreamer, and she now shares her dreams with the girls at Hope Village.

In an interview with Future Challenges, Ali speaks of the challenges she faces, and the hope that keeps her going in this battle for the rights of street children and young mothers.

FC: You are a strong advocate for street girls and young street mothers in Cairo. When was the moment you decided you would fight for this cause?

NA: I started by doing my PhD research. My fieldwork was with street kids in general and so I found an NGO that would let me work under their supervision – it’s hard to just take to the streets as the kids are managed by a whole community of street adults that don’t take kindly to researchers. It was during the fieldwork that I got to know the street girls and realized that very little academic or social work was being done with this marginalized group of young women and as I built my friendships with them, I realized that I was being read and listened to about other issues I was commentating on, on Egypt at the time and so I took this opportunity use social media and blogging as a channel to which they could be heard.

FC: As an anthropologist, how can you explain the ailing situation of street children in Egypt today?

NA: The children have developed their own language, terminology, defense mechanisms, dress codes, survival strategies and society seems happy with the “otherness” this creates. It was interesting too to learn how the government upon being offered 17,000,000 LE for the street kids “problem” they did not consult a single NGO that works with street kids and instead decided they would build a city where they would move all street children to. This highlighted how marginalized this group of kids are, how they are perceived as a threat to society and also highlights that their situation worsens by mainstreams perception and lack of understanding.

FC: Can you describe the plight of street children in Egypt, particularly girls and women?

NA: This is a really hard question to answer in just a few words, but I’m going to try. I think it would be useful to talk about the plight of street girls and young women in terms of the different stages of their life cycle, so to speak.

These girls come from families who have been violent to them in one way or another and have found no support at the time, before migrating to the street in an attempt of reconciliation and of course, where inappropriate, then a lack of appropriate alternative care.

Then they move to the streets; which are even harsher than their home circumstances at times where they are subjected to a whole new range of violence and abuse and deprivation. One extremely articulate street girl answered me, when I asked her why she wouldn’t go home if the street was worse: “you can forgive the street because it’s not supposed to care for you, but how can you forgive your mum and dad who are supposed to be nothing but love and care”. This really threw a new light on the issue of rehabilitation and why it is, often, unsuccessful.

Then the violence and struggle at correctional centers and institutions where the monitoring of staff is catastrophic and lacking to say the least.

And then to the challenges they face when they fall pregnant, lack of antenatal care, humiliation at the hospitals they go to give birth in, lack of support with the paper work and the huge emotional and practical responsibility of having a child when they are children themselves.

FC: You are a volunteer and project manager at Hope Village, a day-shelter for young mothers in Cairo. What are the biggest challenges you face at the shelters?

NA: The biggest challenge is fighting the feeling that I just want to take them all home with me! But there are more challenges of course, treating them all fairly, listening without surprise – remember these kids have more experience in their small number of years than we have in a lifetime. One of the greatest challenges is standing around helpless as a parent of one of the children comes in to take his/her son/daughter and we know they will bring them back in a very bad state, but we have our hands tied by the laws which allow abusive parents to take their children away to beg with them for instance.

FC: Encountering the agony of homeless children day after day, you must often be overcome by a desire to stop. What keeps you going?

NA: I need to keep going because I realize on the days I don’t tweet and blog about them, no one is. When I went to speak to the girls about my research, I told them I had no questions for them, all I would report on was what was important for them that the world knew, the stories they wanted others to hear and know. If I stop that, all they will have are the sensational stories and numbers and statistics that totally dehumanize them. Many other things keep me going, the way they hug and kiss me when I come in through the door, the same girls that flinch at the slightest gesture from a stranger.

FC: In one of your articles, you revealed the story of Taghreed, a girl who ran away from her abusive father and now lives alone with her baby on the street. You wrote she only dreams of issuing a national ID. How have your dreams as a person changed, in light of the unorthodox stories you encounter everyday?

NA: Yes, definitely. I’m glad you asked this question because it’s been playing on my mind for a while. I was wondering recently where my “future plans/dreams” were and couldn’t find any… I realized that after working with the girls I have started to dream “collectively” so to speak, every dream is for a group of people, for families, for nations, etc. I find this really interesting and I am still figuring out what it’s about.

It isn’t just my dreams that have changed, though. Working with the street girls has changed me as a person. I try and write in all my bios now “I go to university to teach and I go to the street kids to learn”. They have taught me the most important lessons in friendship, love, maternal matters, struggle, resilience, resistance and they have also taught me the power of dreaming, that without holding on to dreams, you wouldn’t have the way to carry on.

I feel like I am so privileged to live these girl’s lives with them for many reasons. One of the things I’ve learnt is that once you start living for a cause, your personal problems aren’t an issue anymore, you learn to let go and be far more reasonable, forgiving and willing to compromise – you are armed with the “bigger picture” through their stories.

FC: If there is one human right you are fighting for, what would it be?

NA: The right to sleep with both eyes closed: the right to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

FC: Let’s dream for a minute. If you had a magic wand, what would you change/fix in order for those street children and mothers to lead normal lives? 

NA: I love magic wands… do you know that I actually carry one in my bag often! If I had one that would work for the girls, though, I would wave it at two things, the first would be their parents to push them to the street and the other at society who cannot embrace their misfortune.

From the Diary of a British-Egyptian Girl: First Working Day in Egypt – Queues and Personal Space

Nathan Destro and his “personal space protector” on the streets of Johannesburg. Photos by Christo Doherty

I left him to speak, as he leaned over me and with his well moisturised arm reached out with the money having invaded my personal space (a concept that actually does not exist in Egypt), was paying for three canned drinks. Only when he spoke to the kiosk vendor saying “a pack of tissues” (without saying please) did I realise he was not, in fact, after a piggyback ride. Just before this, I had bought a bottle of water and was waiting for my change.

As the man (who was very smartly dressed and sported a pair of D&G sunglasses and smelt rather awesome) abused the notion of taking turns, I turned around – while he was waiting for his change – and I said, with the sweetest smile I could muster, “excuse me, can I please ask you something?” Feeling quite smug, he looked at me with an I-know-I’m-hot-and-you-couldn’t-resist-but-find-an-excuse-to-speak-to-me smile, replied “sure, of course”. “Thank you! I’m new to Egypt and I am really excited to learn about the customs here… and I was wondering if you could please explain to me (the smile now quickly disappearing off my lips) why it is you are completely unaware of anyone’s presence but yourself, what is it that went through your head that made you possibly think it was OK not to acknowledge someone else, what about you is so amazing that you felt it was not a problem to take my turn in the queue?” Completely taken aback he mumbled something about his car. I looked around and saw he had left the door of his BMW open and I went on to say “Ohhhhh, I see, so I am supposed to feel better about having walked half an hour in the scorching sun, been harassed about 15 times in the walk, because you are worried the a/c effect was decreasing? I apologize”. He didn’t reply.

I was angry. I realised this was a huge problem on the streets of this beautiful city. No one cared about anyone else’s feelings, anyone else’s priorities, efforts, problems. People didn’t give you personal space because as soon as someone else saw it, they would think it was a gap for them to push into. This is so contradictory with the nature of Egyptian people who if they saw you in distress or in need all get together to help you in anyway they can. However, it seemed that the idea that there is “not enough” – of whatever it is, time, food, etc. drove people away from that helpful, kind nature into one demonstrated by the good looking but nasty natured man of this morning. It had nothing to do with how well educated or cultured you were. Manners in Egypt are one of those mystic things; there are no rules and no patterns of behaviour that are common to any one class, group, or creed. Each person in each of these grouping had his or her own set of rules of conduct – and it is beyond me what this is based on.

This was the topic of conversation with a working class girl from the suburbs on our way home. Her interpretation of the behaviour was that people “where you come from” are involved in setting the rules that govern them and their behaviour and so they respect it and respect each other, but, she went on to explain, over here in Egypt, people were never involved, they never had a say in what rules should govern them and so they each created their own that suited them, that would get their stuff done with the least amount of hassle in the shortest possible time. It doesn’t really matter if she was right or wrong, what mattered was how political that comment was and how her being so analytical cheered me up. There are clearly boundary issues that need to be dealt with, but I’ve decided not to be so angry with those who are on their feet sweating for hours to get to and from work when they push in anymore, but elitists who step out of their BMW’s and push in, will not stop getting a piece of my mind. Every time. “Queuing in Egypt” is just as much an Oxymoron as “British-Egyptian” and apart from the option of walking around in hula-hoops from head to toe; I can forget this British etiquette in Egypt altogether.

Shariff and Nelly – Marriage Vows

I, Nelly Ali, take you, Shariff Elwardany, to be my lawfully wedded husband, knowing in my heart that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you, in the presence of God and everyone here, my sacred promise to stay by your side as your faithful wife in sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I also promise to love you without reservation or pride, to comfort you in times of distress, encourage you to achieve all of your dreams, laugh with you and cry with you, be the sunshine in the dark for you, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you, and cherish you for as long as we both shall live; every moment full of forevers, every moment I will be on your team, every moment I will be your Tenderheart.

I, Shariff Elwardany, take you, Nelly Ali to be my lawfully wedded wife, knowing in my heart that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you, in the presence of God and everyone here, my sacred promise to stay by your side as your faithful husband in sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I also promise to love you without reservation or pride, to honour and respect you, provide for your needs as best I can, protect you from harm, comfort you in times of distress, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you, and cherish you for as long as we both shall live; every moment full of forevers, every moment I will be on your team, every moment I will be your Lionheart.

Personal Post: When He Stopped Sending Flowers to My Grave

When he stopped sending flowers to my grave, I was free to rise from it.

It had been so long. So many years I I knew I would hear the bell ring every Valentines Day, every birthday and every anniversary. Three times a year the bell would ring and I would expectantly open the door to an assault of colours and a smell of flowers, that in London, were always wanting. There would be a teddy too. The teddy, though meant for company, had a look in his eyes that demonstrated his awareness of the new home that would house him. A home full of teddies each representing a chain ensuring the exclusion and exile I was being sentenced to. And there would also be chocolates. Rich, expensive chocolates, boxed in the shape of a heart – as if we had forgotten the real heart, the flesh and muscle and blood that would ache in the loneliness these very chocolates were eaten in.

These three gifts were markers of time. They were the “rites of passage” from one miserable year to the next. Confirmation that life hadn’t changed, and that I haven’t moved on. They were the ringing of the chains that bound me. They always came when we weren’t “together”. Always an apology for having chosen a life that didn’t include me in its “realness”. They were the flowers that carried the message that I, despite the physical and emotional miles, wasn’t forgotten. That I was the love, the fun, the good memories. That even though I wasn’t the “chosen one”, I was the loved one. I hated them. And I hated him.

He came in and out of my life just as quickly as the flowers arrived and withered on my window sill. I didn’t know what kept him coming, or what kept me allowing him in. Till the last time I accepted his return I finally understood: it was the flowers. He bought with the price he was paying for them the coffin he had laid me in. The tomb which he was satisfied watching me laying in; lifeless, belonging to no one else, having no future. His respects paid to the life he had taken was the flowers he sent to the grave three times a year. A confirmation I was dead, and alive just in his memory. They were heavy and they weighed the lid of the coffin down. They had to stop coming so I could rise from my own grave. In desperate, bitter, passionate, hot, hot, hot tears I begged him to stop.

The first occasion came and I woke up too scared to crawl out of bed. I prayed the explosion of colours wouldn’t be flooding the joy out of my life and heart today. I prayed so hard that I would start my crawl out beyond the earth and mud that suffocated me today. I couldn’t think of anything else. I dedicated all my power just keeping the evil teddy away from my door. All my power of concentration was directed at keeping the van that came in its solemn annual duty, away. And the flowers didn’t come. When the clock struck midnight, I burst into tears! Such happy, happy tears. The same tears a blind man sheds seeing the blue of the sky for the first time. This was my chance to breath again, to live again and to love again.

Then you came into my life with the rainbows in the flowers you bought. You, the pot of gold behind them. You came to change the meaning of flowers in the rainbows that before you, used to appear in monochrome, changing the richness and taste of chocolates, changing my understanding of love, linking love – as it always should – with happiness. And this is why, my love, when I thank you for the flowers, I am actually thanking you for bringing me back to life.

Personal Post: I am the Common Denominator


It seems the world offers me the best it has to offer me at four year intervals. Since 2008 was a brilliant year for me, I am predicting 2012 to hold much joy and happiness. It feels great starting the year with that conviction. A conviction that for this year, will become my mantra. It strikes me as significant that the main people in my life that were prominent in 2008, are also prominent in 2012 (they know who they are) and the people who were out of my life in that year, are also out of my life again this year (again they know who they are). From this I have much to learn. This is a big part of my job as a researcher after all, this finding patterns, isn’t it?!

I started this year with the firm decision not to make any New Year resolutions. I refused to say what I’m going to do for me. Instead, I asked of the world. I asked it to teach me things I need to learn to live these resolutions as a normal way of life and not something I was setting myself up to fail at. I was giving myself a sort of break, really. I was letting the world know that I understood its place in my life, that I respected it’s power and that I was going to learn how to receive.

Of the things I want to learn this year: a) to learn to love those who love me and b) to start only friendships/relationships/projects that have a chance of succeeding and c) to learn to hear my inner voice to understand what I want. Have I surprised you, reader, with the simplicity of those wishes? If I have, then you are one of the lucky few who understand the three secrets of happiness. For the rest of us, please go back and read them. Are they not the most difficult things to attain?

To reach a destination point (I have recently, finally, started to understand how maps function!) you need to actually know where you are first. In matters of the self, the honesty you need is incredible, difficult and often painful. But, I decided to hold my breath and bare that pain, in hope for something at the destination that would cure these ailments of the spirit.

a) To learn to love those that love me. How often have you caught yourself out with the “approval” habit? It eats away at us silently. It is quite an intricate process. You single out the people that do not totally approve of you, or those who are always critical, or those who actually simply don’t give a damn. Then you just try to please, to change, to be good enough, to impress so they approve. The painful thing is that usually, well – for me at least, these are not people who care about me and want me to change for the “better”, they are people who are just so selfish they want to keep me in their lives, but they just don’t care. Why do I do it if it’s glaringly, obviously, wrong? I actually have a reason. The need for pain. This isn’t a sadistic need. It’s something that much research has gone into, actually. Pain as a medium, a bridge, to some place deep in your soul that you need to touch to become creative, to write, to think, to philosophise, to draw. It feels like the mundane, the “every day”, the “normal” don’t get you there. They don’t hold the key the realms of depth and breadth of emotion that pain has the ability to. This aching of the soul touches parts that so far, happiness has not been able to. The tugging at the heart of the word “impossible” knocked on the doors of creativity and of growth.

But despite the explantations, I still don’t understand how love and pain have been so closely linked? I stopped this year and thought, “How dare I?! How dare I fall into the trap that this was the only way I could be what I wanted?!” For in truth, I was the common denominator. The different people came and went and I was left, I was left accountable for the thoughts, the feelings, the actions. I decided to take responsibility and let go of the inappropriate role of “victim”. I was going to take charge and I was going to make the search for happiness, and not the need for pain, the centre of my quest and those that made me happy would be the pivots of my world. Those would be the people I would link to love. I will no longer thank those who have hurt me, claiming that they taught me to be the person that I am. I wont, because I am accepting that I can learn much, too, from those who care and are kind and generous in their love. I am ready, world, to accept that love. I have found the barriers inside me that blocked it out and I am pulling them down. I will learn to love those who love me.

b) to start only friendships/relationships/projects that have a chance of succeeding. I guess where I was going wrong here is my skewed definition of the word “challenge”. In my dictionary, prior to this awakening, a challenge was usually something I knew 100% would not work out. It was a challenge in that I would faithfully bleed, sweat and pray. But that was it; that was the only resemblance to the real life dictionary definition.

I then realised the need to be kind to myself. I needed to accept my limitations to even begin to understand what was too easy, what was a genuine challenge, what was a challenge that wasn’t worth it and finally what was out of reach, not because I was not capable, but because it wasn’t the path I wanted to be on. I decided to learn the skill of letting go and giving in to challenges that did not fair well on the cost/benefit scale of emotion. It turns out to be that this was directly linked to the third point.

c) to learn to hear my inner voice to understand what I want. I was lucky to grow up with the support of my family to try things out. My mum and dad were the sort of parents who went out to buy the full karate outfit when I decided martial arts was my thing. They also bought me a piano when I thought music was my calling. My sister spent all her pocket money one month to go out and buy me a full calligraphy set and stand and paper when I felt that the art of handwriting was why I was born. Dina spent a significant amount of her redundancy money to support my decision of driving lessons. Shariff gave me the space to be every sort of woman i wanted to experiment being in a relationship, the independent feminist when I wanted and the the damsel in distress when he unfailingly set me free from the prison of independence. Ezzidin was there to teach me the joy of writing letters while everyone was on emails. My managers at work signed and approved every business development, project management and leadership workshop that took my fancy. My overdraft was, also, very supportive every time I enrolled on a course, from sign language, to psychoanalysis, to journal writing, to left brain training. Tant Kamilia was there when I wanted to be Christian, Ahmed was there when I wanted to be Muslim, Margaret was there when I wanted to be Brahma Kumarian and Anand was there when I was contemplating becoming Hindu.

You would be mistaken to think, having read the above, that the problem was me not knowing what I want. I just realised that this IS what I wanted. I want to celebrate the diversity and the contradiction and the fact that my fancies are not static. I needed to let go of the guilt of not following through or sticking to one thing. I accept now that I need to learn to shut out the voice of the structures around me. All expectations constructed by my family, schooling, media, gender, ethnicity, peers, class, creed, race, all had to be shut out. I finally discovered the volume button to something that should have been given supreme status. My inner voice. The voice that knew it’s ok to keep trying things out. That I didn’t have to be like the so many who knew exactly what they wanted to be and do as soon as they turned 4. That life was too short to be so sure of everything or anything. My voice, inside my own heart, was telling me it always wanted to be free to say “when I grow up….” But you know what was incredibly ironic? As soon as I let go, as soon as I accepted the not knowing, as soon as I wanted the freedom of keeping my options open; I knew exactly what I wanted. I felt satisfied and celebratory of where my life had taken me. The even better thing was that if this hadn’t happened, it would have still been ok because I would have enjoyed the journey and the search because I had entitled myself to experiment, to doubt, but most importantly, to change.

The most significant outcome of taking the time to reflect, was to understand that I was the common denominator. That nothing was anyone’s fault. That I am not so weak as to give anyone or anything or any circumstance the power over me by playing that person or that things victim. This is why I wrote this post. I wrote it in the hope that maybe one person out there will read it, and as they do, they will feel the absolute power and freedom I feel having written it and that they, too, will let go of the “approval” habit. They too will accept the love they deserve and maybe they, too, will be liberated in their discovery of wanting to try, and not simply wanting to want.

Personal Post: Midnight Judgement

Have you felt it before? That over powering feeling that you are full; so full you are over flowing, you’re bursting with… nothing? That’s how I feel now. It is my duty towards myself to write about this nothing; to empty the nothingness on to paper in the form of words so that there is space in my soul for what I would rather fill it with.

Do you think there should be a Lack of Gratefulness Disorder? Do you think by saying this I have disrespect for the person who suffers this terrible illness? Then you misunderstand me. This aspect of the disorder is perhaps one of the most painful. Painful not because you are not appreciating what you have, but because you are so acutely aware of your blessings and your lack of appreciation of them and you are suffocated in guilt. Suffocated because no matter how much is going on, no matter how lucky you are for all you are involved in; there is this huge gap; filled and overflowing with nothing. It’s something nothing on the outside can fill. And you, in desperation, try to fill it. You, at first, try with interest in the outside world, friends, love, hobbies, shopping, TV, politics, revolution. You wait, you watch expectantly and the emptiness grows, the space that holds the emptiness deepens. You then try and fill it in more desperate, more extreme ways; drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, over spending, over eating, risk, you take a razor and cut yourself, attempting to fill the gap with pain, with blood; but nothing. It haunts you, it tugs at your heart and it distances you from the whole world and everyone in it. This emptiness: you become it.

It is a curse to be intelligent, inquisitive, self reflecting. But ignorance is a greater curse because life is wasted on a life of floating on the surface of feelings and emotions. I tried a few times to lay back, relax, float and only touch the waters that pass quietly below me as I float; but even at those times my hair floated behind me weighing me down, I had to keep going and hoping for forces to move me along quickly in fear that if a stopped that mass of hair would wrap around my face and neck and drag me back down again. But the truth is, I was never floating. The “I” was somewhere else. The body was there, obeying the laws of the sea. But the “I”, the invisible mass has laws unto its own that no one can interfere with. This “I” was sinking more at those times in the deepest part of that sea. The depth of an ocean unimaginable even to me.

It is at precisely those moments that the detachment between body and soul is at its greatest and I looked in at myself with great amusement – and pity. I knew that when those moments of self denial were over, the self scrutiny and analysis would be deep and harsh and their call would have to be obeyed. Condemnation, the daily bedtime tablet. The slashing of the spirit that has let down and been let down. The deep sense of shame of existing as I am. The shame of having not contributed to an improved, better world. Where do I run from that? From the reality that my entire existence today was worth nothing, that I added nothing of value and lifted nothing of decay from this world that I occupy. How desperate this leaves me to seek approval and relieve pain of any sort, not out of kindness but to save myself from the night time blame where I am my own hangman. I am a slave to this emotion; a slave to being able to answer, “Yes!” confidently to questions such as “are you worthy of being loved, of living?”.

These midnight rambles are the most important. I am the prosecutor and lawyer at the witching hours. I am so harsh on this soul and I know it. I try to defend it, but the emptiness and what I have tried to fill it with are witnesses to the failure of the day. I have not acted well. I have not understood the purpose of the hours or the interactions with the people I have met with and I seem to have been blind to all the signs. Would have spending the day alone been any better? Are those nights safer from the whippings of my own remorse had I spent the day alone? Hardly ever. Do I have to go protect olive trees in Palestine, or build wells in Africa, do I have to donate a kidney or sign my organs away after death to feel that I have deserved the air given to me to breath? Perhaps. Perhaps even then I will feel the guilt that I am only doing it to be able to beat insomnia of the conscience…

Palm Reader

By profession I am a palm reader
By living there are things I just can see
I will read your palm for you
And I will charge you no fee

Turn your hand towards the light
Let me take a better look
Is it because the room’s not bright?
It’s usually like reading a book

No. The future isn’t written here
The lines here are a mask
What’s happening isn’t clear
This is proving no easy task

I can’t see where the sun will shine
Where have they gone, its rays?
I can’t see the roses and wine
The rainbow is shades of greys Ah!

Here are the curses
That have you under their bind
Ones that no doctor or nurses
Can help you leave behind

Your curse is that you feel my dear
You understand the heart
And what more than tear after tear
Falls when of the body you master that part

Your curse isn’t black magic
Or someone keeping a voodoo doll
Your case is far more tragic
Over the years it’ll take its toll

The duty you pay for the curse my dear
Is a tax with a price so high
For the curse you bear is one to fear
And there are no answers to questions of why

My dear your curse is that you care
About things big and small
And in a world where nothing is fair
It decides if you walk or crawl

The curse is that you think too much
In a world where no one has a choice
The curse is there’s no one to touch
When silence is your only voice

Oh! Look…the curse that’s worst
That follows you like a ghost
It is the one for which you thirst
The “Past” my darling, will hurt you most

Oh Go now, there is nothing more
For me to read in this palm of yours
My eyes are now feeling sore
I have to get back to my daily chores

No! Wait; come back, before you go
There’s one thing left to tell
Don’t go out looking for fairness
The only place that’s fair is hell

Rules of Contradiction

I do not know how to obey these rules; or what to make of myself; this bundle of contradictions that I am.

I so crave to put myself out there to the world, with all the beauty and ugliness mingled together, creating the “me” that so often I have no choice of being or not being. For this IS who I am; an oxymoron to my very core. I know the categories I should place myself in; I know well which boxes to tick for each of my beings. I’ve been taught what I need say to make people feel safe around me; the values I need to adopt to fit in.

The truth is complicated. It is acceptable that people shift their ideologies from one phase of life to the other, people who do this are somewhat accepted, but I am not one of those “just about acceptable” people. I change my ideologies from word to word, micro second to the next. I believe in two opposite things at exactly the same femto second and the words “I’m sure” are a blessing that has forgotten me.

So often I have things to say leaving the person I am speaking to in awe, falling in love with the mind that thought it. These moments frighten me. They shut me up completely; for I know that the very next sentence will make them think what they so fell in love with was a line learnt off by heart; I did not really know the meaning of what I said, that it was a fluke, that I didn’t really deserve the admiration, that I am not that well read, that I have great potential but I’m not ready to be taken under their wing. But none of what they conclude is true. I know well what I said, where it came from, I felt it with every atom of my being… just as I did the contradictory sentence after it.

The problem is deeper than that still. It doesn’t just manifest itself in conversation, social and political ideology; it is worse and far scarier than that. I am all and everything I should and shouldn’t be.

There are only things I know I am not. I can identify myself by the laws of deduction. I am not a Capitalist (by disassociation), I am not a Jew (because I cannot chose this religion), I am not a man (biologically at least) and I am not a hamster. On the other hand, I am the oxymoron. I can comfortably claim to be a die hard Conservative Socialist, a fully dedicated Brahma Kumarian Christian Orthodox Sunni Muslim, I am the extrovert introvert, a female “b meet ragel” and all this perhaps because I was brought up to be the patriotic British Egyptian.

29 Years and 24 Months Years Old

I was typing yesterday and I suddenly got a glimpse of my fingers typing; well not exactly my fingers, but the skin on the fingers that cover the same bones they covered 31 years. The skin was different. This was NOT my skin. There seemed to be three alphabetical letters that were stamped on every single cell of this alien skin. A. G. E. I stopped typing and examined this alien hand and realised that I did not recognise these fine lines, the extra creases on the knuckles, the slightly darkening skin where the bones bend and straighten… Who’s hands were these?!

But there was absolutely no point – whatsoever – feeling the slightest disturbed by this. “This”, what ever this was, be it nature, the way of life, the meanness of the world, whatever, but THIS, happened to everyone. But this is how I spent my birthday this year. I spent it looking at the little lines and wondered if God added a little one there for every joy, every heart ache, every dream achieved and each one broken… every line telling a story about life as we grow to know it.

The white hairs that have multiplied ridiculously over the last few months don’t disturb me. On the contrary, actually, I am very fond of them. So much so that I brush my hair in a way that they are more visible. They match the new “Professor Persona” that I’ve downloaded as part of a new theme to my life (lol). But these little lines… my hand – I cannot seem to forgive age for this cruelty.

But it’s because I haven’t linked the lines appearing on my hands as I have the white sprouting among the black in on my head. It’s all a visual exercise. The power of the mind over the body. Something I must learn to do as well I have learnt to look in the mirror and think “Ah, not THAT fat”. No, I’m just joking. But I do want to look at my hands and be proud. I want to look at them and think that these lines are a mark of honour for the kindness that they extend, the hard work they have dedicated to the world, the times little fingers wrapped around mine. Just like the manual laborers are proud of the calluses on their palms for the honest bread it brings their family, so may the fine lines become river banks where good can be written.

What is age, but a number of years and months… and a few white hairs.

My Birthday’s Resolutions

This year, starting the 3rd May 2011, I have a new set of New Years Resolutions. I am going to record them here so that I can look back (if I’m alive) on 3rd May 2012 and see how well I have done to keep them.

  • Look through all my past new years resolutions and make absolutely sure that I do not include a single one of them as a resolution again.
  • I will create a list of things I will NOT do this year. These include:
  •                                I will NOT try to lose weight this year
  •                                I will NOT try to EVER go to the gym – not ONCE
  •                                I will NOT force myself to like raw tomatoes
  •                                I will NOT try and fix the lives of everyone who comes to me with the pieces
  • I will re embrace my semi vegetarian state – no animals that are out of the sea
  • I will block every single boy/girl who only contact me only for stuff they want
  • I will complete my year of field work with Street Kids in Cairo
  • I will give every ounce of effort to support the new Democratic Workers Party in Egypt
  • I will learn to say NO to people I love
  • I will learn to say the word “exactly” correctly and will learn to say the word “chivalry” as one word, not three
  • I will let go of memories that hurt me – emotionally and through memorabilia
  • I will let go of people who have continuously bought me down to the pits of hell with their own decay
  • I will publish at least one paper in an international journal on childhood
  • I will surround myself with more children than adults
  • I will accept, at last, the way I am with absolutely no need for change
  • I will treat everyone I meet as if they will die tomorrow
  • I will at some point when I’m settled geographically, get a pet
  • I will start learning something that enhances my creativity (pottery, calligraphy or photography)
  • I will eat more pop corn and less mushrooms (for no particular reason)
  • I will make sure that the people I love know this, not by words but by deeds…

My Move to Cairo

So… I’m off to Egypt for a year.

I’m grateful, for the first time, for the little Egyptian ID card I have. For a few months now I’ve been contemplating photocopying a blasted version of it and plastering it on door 27 where I live. The revolution wasn’t just about bread, dignity and social justice. The revolution was about change, it was about growth, it was about new chances – more chances. It feels unnatural to chose anything in the world but to be part of that. To be anything but a Lotus flower that grows beautiful in the midst of adversity and what others see as ruin/decay.

I am secretly grateful that my decision to move to Cairo was made easier by a previous plan to do my fieldwork there starting May 2011. It means I don’t have to convince “concerned” family and friends with the move.

I spoke with one of my soul mates recently; I was complaining about the uncertainties and excuses when it came to principles and morals. He answered simply that; I just needed to realise that between the black and the white at the ends of that monochrome rainbow that is life…there are many shades of grey… This sentence has stayed with me. I remember it every morning, every night and before I make any decision. I want to stay as close as possible to the colours that are solid, sturdy. Colours that I am not ashamed of. I want to be right, or wrong. I do not want to linger in the “in between” – ever. This is why I am moving to Cairo, after the buzz of revolution, during the times of fragile security and apprehensive faith. I want to go to Cairo now, to be a functional part of a system crying out to be functional so that I do not live with regret, or shame for not having gone back to a country I belonged to when it needed every last good intention and honest effort it could get.

On a personal level, I have enough regret to deal with that I did not feel the warmth of the Tahrir asphalt on my cheeks as others did the 18 days that Egyptians changed their country and with it, the world’s understanding of freedom. That I was not brave enough to drop everything and join those who baked and tasted a new holy bread called determination and freedom, who created an alter at Liberation Square. Those who defied the Greek translated of Utopia (Greek for “no where”) and created just that and lived and built on it for 18 days. Mingled with my shame of not having been there, is a huge pride that I still, from my comfortable home in England am blood related to those I consider, the truest Utopians.

Poem: Benches

Benches… over looking daisies and flowing water…
Forgetting that of this land, I am someone elses’ daughter…
This moment is my country… these seconds are my land…
I am born a thousand times, when gently you hold my hand…

Benches… over looking daisies and flowing water…
I come to heal all the times my soul was a victim of slaughter
This moment is my salvation… these seconds are my last chance
I am free to sing, to love, to run, to dance

Benches… over looking daisies and flowing water…

Poem: Does Heaven Have a Number?

I’m looking for a number to call you on God
Do you have a number, up there in heaven?
I’ve been looking to call you and for you to answer
Since my first goldfish died when I was seven

I went to a mosque and I found you
And at church you were also there
At temple I became humble
And at a synagogue people turned to stare

You were in and out and all around me
It didn’t matter where I looked
You were at every street corner
And to your love I was faithfully hooked

I remember it was always you I came to
When I cut my finger or fell off my bike
To tell you about a failed exam paper
Or a broken heart from the boy I like.

I’m holding the yellow pages here
Do you know what section the number would be in?
To call and confess to you
About my own and the rest of the worlds ugly sin

Do you have a helper, I could leave a message
Just a number for someone to take my call
To tell them about the weeping ulcer
That came hit after hit, from fall after fall

I need to get through and speak to you
I have so much to tell
I need your number in heaven
To speak to you of what its like, here in hell

Finding Meaning through Logotherapy is the Answer to Man’s Existential Crisis

Synopsis of Frankl’s Life:
Viktor Emile Frankl was born in a Jewish family of civil servants in Vienna on 26 March 1905. He trained to become a neurologist and psychiatrist and in 1924, he became president of the Sozialistische Mittelschuler Osterreich where he counselled students (not a single student committed suicide while he held this post and then in 1933 moved Berlin after this success and headed the Selbstmorder Pavilion (the suicide pavilion) of the General Hospital in Vienna and treated over 30,000 women. He stayed here till 1937.1938 he was prohibited from treating Aryan patients due to his Jewish ethnicity. In December 1941 married Tilly Grosser. On 25 September 1942 him and his family were arrested and taken to the concentration camp of Theresienstcidt. On 19 October 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz and stayed there till 27 April 1945 only him and his sister surviving. In 1947 married his second wife. Throughout his life he wrote over 32 books and lectured at Harvard and Vienna and received 29 honorary doctorate degrees.


Oscar Wilde, in his work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, wrote: “Nothing in the whole world is meaningless, suffering least of all”. This is the central theme to Frankl and to Logotherapy. That meaning can be found through suffering and that it ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning. What matters is the stand one takes. His attitude towards facts rather than the circumstances themselves is what’s important. Frankl’s optimism does not deter his argument that man has to accept his finiteness in its triad. Throughout his work he highlights that man needs to face the fact that he has failed, he is suffering and that he will die. He says it has become easy to blame existential philosophy for over emphasising the tragic aspects of human existence, and though it centres on issues such as death and suffering it is not pessimistic and that man has to deal with the tragedy of human existence and not allow them to be blurred or clouded by the doctor he visits. He rightfully reminds us that dying, pain and guilt are not inventions of Logotherapy or Existentialism, but state of affairs which belong to the human condition.

What threatens man is his guilt in the past and his death in the future. Both are inescapable and both must be accepted. It is this, when properly understood which adds to life’s worthwhileness, since only in the face of guilt does it make sense to improve, and only in the face of death is it meaningful to act. If man were immortal he would be justified in delaying everything. Frankl sees that existential guilt is simply inherent in the human condition.

After Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology, Logotherapy comes as the “third Viennese school of psychotherapy”. It is Existential analysis that focuses on a “will to meaning” as opposed to Adler’s Nietzschian doctrine of “will to power” or Freud’s “will to pleasure”. The concept of Logotherapy is contrary to Freud’s Pleasure Principle and to Adler’s Power Principle. Logotherapy insists that mans main concern is not to seek pleasure or to avoid pain, but to find a meaning to life. Thus we see man is ready to suffer if only he can be satisfied that his suffering has meaning. It is a Stoic philosophy in that it holds that no matter the state of the world, the attitude we chose is what helps. The Stoic Epictetus held that “men are not moved by events but by their interpretation”. Many motivational speakers and self help gurus have taken this stance in their lectures and books; a prime example of this is Anthony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within).

“Logos”, the Greek word meaning “rational order” is not the meaning intended for Frankl’s Logotherapy. For this form of existential therapy, Logos is taken to translate into “meaning”, help through meaning. Existential Analysis is the philosophical and scientific basis of Logotherapy. The therapy is the natural result of Frankl’s existential theories on man’s search for meaning. The therapy is rooted in three philosophical concepts: Freedom of will, Will to meaning and Meaning in life. Of Logotherapy, Frankl says: “Logotherapy is not only concerned with being, but with meaning (ontos and logos). This feature accounts for the activistic, therapeutic orientation of Logotherapy. Not only an analysis, but also a therapy”.

Freedom of Will is based on the belief that humans are not entirely products of environmental or biological conditions but have the freedom to decide and that this freedom is the space in which the person has to shape their own life within the limits of the possibilities available to him. This philosophical concept relies on the spiritual dimensions of the person which he believes has power over the body and psyche. It is a strong argument in that is gives the patient room for autonomous action no matter the circumstances or what they are facing, be it somatic or psychological ill health. It also empowers the patient to have a more positive attitude, making them feel they are in a position to regain control and indeed can exercise self determination.

The second philosophical concept the therapy is based on, Will to Meaning, goes one step further to argue that we are not only free, but free to achieve goals and purposes and that the frustration of the existential need for meaningful goals will give rise to aggression, addiction, depression and suicidiality, and it may increase neurotic disorders and that if we know this, then we are on the right track for discovering better ways to fulfil the meanings we are searching for by understanding and removing obstacles that stand in the way of them pursuing meaningful goals in our lives. Though this appears to be susceptible to the criticism of being directive in an almost unethical fashion, it is important to point out that the patient is only guided while detecting these meanings themselves. Frankl says: “the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected”.

Finally, the third philosophical point, Meaning in Life, helps Logotherapy base itself on the idea that meaning is an objective reality. This is very different to how occupational and recreational therapies work by diverting the patient’s attention from unpleasant experiences. Logotherapy does not shy away from this. On the grounds of their freedom and responsibility, patients are encouraged to bring out the possible best in themselves and in the world by perceiving and realising the meaning of the moment in each and every situation, its pains along with its joy. Frankl says: “Logotherapy… considers man as a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning and in actualising values, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts”.

There are three therapeutic techniques used in Logotherapy. Paradoxical Intention (used mainly for compulsive disorders, anxiety and vegetative syndromes), Deflection, or shifting of focus (used for sexual disorders, sleeplessness and anxiety disorders), and finally Socratic dialogue, or modification of attitudes (used for certain attitudes and expectations} obstacles to meaning fulfilment which can alienate a person from the meaning potentialities in their life (neurotic disorders).

In Paradoxical Intention, the patient is guided by the therapist to learn to overcome their obsessions or anxieties by self distancing and humorous exaggeration (a prime example of this on a large scale is the Egyptian humour, where any tragedy which hits the country is followed by a wide spread array of jokes repeated), thus breaking the vicious circle of symptom and symptom amplification. Deflection involves instinctive, automatic processes being impeded and hindered by exaggerated self observation. Some mild and well founded sensations of anxiousness or sadness will be increased and amplified by self observation. It is the purpose of de reflection to break the neuroticizing circle by drawing the patient’s attention away from the symptom or the naturally flowing process. The final technique, Socratic Dialogue, has been described by some as “spiritual midwifery”. It is a controversial method where questions are aimed to raise into consciousness the possibility to find, and the freedom to fulfil, meaning in one’s life. This is definitely the most directive of the three.

Meaning through creative values, Meaning through experiential values and Meaning through attitudinal values are the three ways the therapist tries to enlarge the patient’s understanding of meaning. Of the first, Frankl says: “the Logotherapist role consists in widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of meaning and values becomes conscious and visible to him”. Of the second, Meaning through experiential values, Frankl says: “let us ask a mountain-climber who has beheld the alpine sunset and is so moved by the splendour of nature that he feels cold shudders running down his spine – let us ask him whether after such an experience his life can never again seem wholly meaningless”. Frankl uses the famous dialogue between himself and an old doctor who had recently lost his wife to highlight the use of meaning through attitudinal values:

Frankl: What would have happened if you had died first and your wife had survived you?
Man: oh, for her this would have been terrible, she would have suffered
Frankl: you see, such a suffering has been spared her and it is you who have spared her this suffering, but now, you have to pay for it by surviving her and mourning her” (MSFM)

There are two main attempts at developing Logotherapy after Frankl’s death that are worth mentioning at this point. The first involves James Crumbaugh through his “Purpose in Life Test”. Here he attempts to focus on values and meanings more systematically so that the foundation becomes more scientific than Frankl’s traditional methods. The other involves Wong and Fry and The Human Quest for Meaning, written in 1998, again, another attempt to deal with Logotherapy on a scientific basis.

Frankl’s reinsertion of religion into psychology is a point of huge controversy. However, it is important to understand it in the subtlety which Frankl intended. He made clear in almost all his writings that the God he refers to is not the God of institutional religion but of the inner human, a God he believes agnostics could accept through the use of the word Transcendence rather than God. He says: “This unconscious religiousness, revealed by our phenomenological analysis, is to be understood as a latent relation to transcendence inherent in man. If one prefers, he might conceive of this relation in terms of a relationship between the immanent self and the transcendent thou”. It is this which Frankl calls transcendence and contrasts it with self actualisation as Maslow uses the term. Self actualisation, even pleasure and happiness, are side effects of self transcendence and the discovery of meaning. For Frankl, the spirit is the will of the human being. The emphasis therefore, is on the search for meaning and not the search for God. Though for some this may bare a resemblance to Jung, we must remember that Frankl’s “unconscious God” is unlike the archetypes Jung discusses. Frankl’s God is transcendent yet personal.

It is interesting to see what other existential thinkers made out of “meaning” and its importance in therapy. The biggest difference is seen between Frankl and Sartre. Frankl’s existentialism is set apart from the existentialism of the likes of Jean Paul Sartre and other atheistic existentialists who suggest that life is ultimately meaningless and we must find the courage to face that meaninglessness. This is because ultimately, experiential, attitudinal values are simply surface manifestations of something more fundamental. What he calls Supra Meaning or Transcendence means there is ultimate meaning in life, meaning that is not dependent on others, on our projects, or even on our dignity. It is a reference to God. Sartre says we must learn to endure ultimate meaninglessness; Frankl instead says that we need to learn to endure our inability to fully comprehend ultimate meaningfulness for “Logos is deeper than logic”.

Another one of the major contrasts is between Frankl and Freud. Their differences are best seen in a selection of quotes. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl says: “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in the concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen… they were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom”. Freud, in The Future of an Illusion says: “Religion is the universal compulsive neurosis of mankind (1975, p69) and in a letter Freud wrote to Princess Bonaparte, he states: “The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick”.

There are writers who have completely different approaches and contributions to existentialism, but share views similar to Frankl on meaning. One of these is Erich Fromm who suggests man makes his life meaningful by living productively and by using his powers of love and reason to the full capacity. There is some resemblance here to Frankl. Abraham Maslow sees meaning being experienced by the self actualised, growth motivated person who delights in using his creative powers for their own sake and who can affirm himself and simultaneously transcend himself through peak experiences. Rollo May argues that meaning is experienced by a person centred in him-self, who is able to live by his highest values, who knows his own intentionality, feels the power of his will to choose and is able to love. Abraham Heschel saw that man experiences his life as meaningful when he lives in God’s presence not simply by encountering God in the world, but primarily by serving God in everyday life. And by allowing oneself to experience or trust in an ultimate meaning which we may or may not call God. His theory has a much heavier religious undertone than Frankl.

Another point Frankl makes which is open to debate is his argument that the “age of Existential Vacuum is where man is not being burdened enough…Tension is not something to be avoided. Existential dynamics exist in the field of tension established between what man is and what he ought to do.” Though, this has wider feeling of acceptance when he says on the same subject “… for too long now we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be ok, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more today, people have the means to live, but no meaning to live for”, in another of his papers he writes: “what man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him”. The argument that science is taking away more from man than that which is gives him is a theme shared across the existentialists.

One of the strengths of Frankl’s is that Mans quest for meaning should be taken at face value and not tranquilised or analysed away even though he sees the use of ECT, drugs and lobotomies as valuable. He writes often that in 1952 he developed the first tranquilizer in Continental Europe and carried out lobotomies himself which he never went on to regret. Frankl says to theologians: Logotherapy, as a secular practice and theory, which it is, refrains from leaving the boundaries of medical science.

There is much other strength attributed to Frankl’s existential theories. Of these, the most prominent of include the inspiration of Frankl’s personal life. He is writing a theory on abstract experience but experience he has suffered and survived. Compared to many other therapies, Logotherapy is simple to understand and if the person undertaking it has faith in it, then the therapy is potentially life changing. The therapy does not set to take away from others, however it does address dimensions to a human’s suffering which are not dealt with by other therapies and compared to other therapies and theories, and a man’s search for meaning through Logotherapy is the more optimistic and productive.

The above does, however, go hand in hand with limitations that need to be highlighted to provide an objective overview of the therapy. It cannot be denied that the most prominent of these is that the therapy is too authoritarian and far more directive than most others. For some, it can be construed as too religious and not sufficiently scientific having reinserted religion back in psychology. To some this may be seen as a regression in any advancement in psychology and the sciences of the mind. Those who fear trends such as pop psychology and the myths they are usually based on will also highlight that the therapy is too dependent on Frankl and his intuitions and experience, resulting in interpretations being too narrow and simplistic.

He says the barriers to humanity’s quest for meaning in life is “affluence, hedonism and materialism”

He knows the “why” for his existence and will be able to bear almost any “how”.

References and Bibliography

Mans search for meaning

Mans unheard cry for meaning

The doctor and the soul

Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. Viktor E Frankl. Penguin Books. 1978. ISBN 01402 15972: Paper 2: Existential Dynamics and Neurotic Escapism 1962

Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. Viktor E Frankl. Penguin Books. 1978. ISBN 01402 15972: Paper 6: Psychiatry and Man’s Quest for Meaning 1961

Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. Viktor E Frankl. Penguin Books. 1978. ISBN 01402 15972: Paper 7: Logotherapy and the Challenge of Suffering. 1965

Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. Viktor E Frankl. Penguin Books. 1978. ISBN 01402 15972: Paper 1: The Philosophical Foundations of Logotherapy 1963.

Letters of Sigmund Freud, Ed. Ernsl L Freud. New York. Basic Books. 1960

The Current Dilemma in Psychotherapy”, Journal of Existential Psychiatry, 1:187. 1960

Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Acta Psychotherapeutica 6.701 1955)
(Viktor Frankl Institute)

Poem: Alive is the Heart That Loves you


I can sense you by my bedside
I can feel you reaching out to hold my hand

You are still not aware it is now the soul
Not the body that you are touching
Even though to you I seem not to respond
My heart screams out trying to whisper your name

Even though you do not see them flow
My tears immerse my soul, attempting
To put out the flames of angerthat rage within you

You rest your head on our united hands
And I feel those bitter tears you shed
From those eyes I have always drowned in
Tears no longer drowning the pain
but nourishing the suffering in the heart they fall upon

I try to move my fingers between yours

To assure you I am sharing your woe
But as my body thunders with in me, shaking
My fingers remain so still

I want you to hug me now
Came lay next to me and hold me

The silence is killing me
Where has it gone… your laugh
That sound which revived me every time I was disheartened
Laugh I beg you laugh
Why are you quiet? Why wont youlaugh?

The stillness is too much to bear, despite
Please…please hear me call your name

We experienced in being together
A sort of love too precious for description
We taught each other the melodies of living
Hand in hand we walked to the centre of life

You are still holding on to my hand now
But soon you will have to let go
As they move my cold hands from your freezing ones
Life’s cruel laws must be obeyed

I will have to leave and you must finish our path alone
My hand will be in yours forever
And you will feel me dwell within you

Yes… alive is the heart that loves you
Even though the body you hold is dead