Love & Lunacy on the Nile: Jellabiya Time

A Visit to the Tailor

When I was in Egypt at age ten, that would be in 1967, my siblings and I found the clothes men wore to be very funny. They looked like pajamas to us, long striped cotton garments,. Women were covered from head to toe, all in black.

In the villages of Luxor, most people still wear traditional jellabiyas and I don’t find them funny anymore. I love them! They are the most practical apparel a person can wear here. I am plagued by mosquitoes and the jellabiya covers my entire body. I can sit comfortable with my feet up on the sofa, like most people do here. Air flows freely through the light material, keeping a person, if not cool, at least cooler than one would be in tight-fitting clothing.

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I had a jellabiya made by the ladies of the village, who are experts in making them for women. Then, I decided to try the tailor who makes them for the men. I wanted to see if there was a difference in quality and style. I love the light and shadows, the colors, sights and sounds of these streets.

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The gentleman was a little freaked out by my request but he rose to the occasion. I am excited to see what my two jellabiyas will look like.

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I still find the women in their black clothing a little sinister, I must admit. At night they appear to be as dark spirits gliding silently along the ground. This place is filled with magic and graceful beauty.

 

Love on the Nile

 

 

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Two nights ago I got married. It happened on this felucca on the Nile with the moon overhead and the lights of Luxor Temple shimmering on the water. It was the most romantic and also the most fun night of my life.

In a moment of reflection, I looked across to Farouk’s Winter Palace, remembering how as a ten year old child my family stayed there, pulling a mattress onto the balcony to escape the heat. I remember asking my dad why only Christians went to heaven while everyone else went to hell. I had met so many people of other faiths and cultures who were truly good people and didn’t deserve such a fate. My dad assured me they did (and let me say I love my dad and respect that he always stood for what he believed). However, it was then I started to question the dangerous myopic view of the zealots–of any religion. So it was especially meaningful to be on that boat thinking how fate had brought me back to this place.

I traveled for three years, from Turkey to Bolivia to Morocco to Costa Rica and beyond, not sure where to lay my head. I  have found my home. Many people might think this is a crazy decision but hey, I’m a crazy person. Life is an adventure, and I’m living it to the fullest, one moment at a time.

 

Luxor East & West

 

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Sailing on the Nile at sunset

 

The sights, sounds and colors of this intimate city of Luxor, built on the east bank of the Nile. Why go over there, except to the supermarket to buy the things you need, or maybe to see some museums, okay, of course, you should see the museums, the people on the west bank say. These people have been born beneath the golden mountain where rests the kings and queens of ancient Egypt. I am living on the west bank for two months amongst interconnecting villages built on canals, interspersed with wheat fields and banana groves. I awaken to the cacophony of birds, braying donkeys and children’s laughter, call of the muezzin–and loudspeakers of people selling wares who drive by all day, various farm machines, motorcycles–everyone rides a motorcycle…but mostly birds.

 

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View from the terrace of Irie BnB, where I’m staying

I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend where I stayed, at Irie BnB, Al Bairat, West Bank. It’s a beautiful building and great location, however the woman who managed the place was a nightmare and most unprofessional. I paid two months in advance and when her behavior became so erratic and aggressive, I had no alternative but to leave. She promised to refund me for my second month but never did. I have nothing against smoking pot, however this woman smokes it constantly, even had many pot plants growing in full view on the terrace, a public space where tourists are invited to sit. This made me very uncomfortable, considering it’s illegal to grow pot in Egypt. The washing machine is on the terrace and guests are invited to use it–except when she decided I shouldn’t use it anymore. She threw my laundry on the ground and when I asked where I should hang them to dry, she responded that I should find a rope and string them up in my room. When I asked if this was how she treated all her paying guests, she laughed, used some foul language I won’t repeat and told me if I didn’t get out of the apartment immediately, she would throw my clothes out on the street. Needless to say, I left, and to this day she has not reimbursed me for my money. I’ve never had an experience like this anywhere in the world in my travels. It verged on scary and could be termed most bizarre.. She started out nice, although somewhat brusque, but it seemed once she got the money, she just didn’t care anymore how she acted. Her behavior was unethical. to say the least. I didn’t report her because I happened to fall in love in love with her brother-in-law, the man who owns the building that she and her husband manage and we got married. (He husband is very nice and seems to find himself in an awkward position). Perhaps that was her problem, she didn’t want me marrying her brother-in-law. At any rate, it’s impossible to know what goes through someone’s mind when they are so bitter and angry and I can only imagine it has more to do with her own problems within herself than anything else. Case in point, the next person who came to stay lasted about three days before she packed up her bags and left. I don’t think anyone has stayed there since.

So my advice would be stay somewhere else! There are many, many wonderful places to stay on the West Bank. After my initial fiasco, I stayed for ten days on the sandal, Amira Sudan, the most romantic of sail boats. It is where my husband and I got married. I am now moving to Luxor permanently, it has captured my heart–in more ways than one!

 

How I Packed Up and Took Off to See the World

Check out the link to my essay on how I freed myself of extra baggage and took off traveling two years ago to find inspiration for my writing. Thank you Amy Oestreicher!

“It doesn’t matter if I am in a café in Phoenix, wrapped in blankets on a freezing night in the Sahara Desert, or writing with a view of Arenal volcano, four fans on full blast to keep the sweat from landing on my computer. I could be in a penthouse suite overlooking the Bosporus, or on a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, or maybe a train across India (a goal of mine). Each space has an atmosphere that speaks to my spirit and sparks my imagination. Each view, whether dark or light, colorful or noisy, joins together to become an added layer in my life.

The shrinking of my possessions has meant the growing of my freedom. The giving up of a static living space has opened a door to the universe. I am not bound by one location, one thought or one experience. My feet move in any direction I point them, light and free. ”

Love My Detour!

INTO THE WORLD_LI

INTO THE WORLD

My World Project                    New Millennium Writings

When I was awarded the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Award for Reflections from Istanbul, an excerpt from my childhood memoir INTO THE WORLD, I was asked to write an introduction, something about my motivation and approach to writing. I recently received the print edition of the anthology and I re-read the introduction, which I hadn’t seen since I sent it off a year ago. With the insidious rise of fear and hatred across America and the prospect of a third World War looming, the introduction and this manuscript are especially vital now. So, here is the introduction:

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It is appropriate that I received news of this award as I was on my way to Marrakech. Writing INTO THE WORLD has been a lesson in endurance, working on it when I can, because it is something I am compelled to write. And I can say that this magical part of the world, Morocco and Egypt in particular, were perhaps the biggest influences in my life from those childhood traveling adventures. So for many years, I kept that dream alive, that determination to come to Morocco and to finish the book. I am blessed to have that dream become a reality, with the added bonus of being able to work with children while I am here.

I am a traveler and I travel where and when I can, through words and pictures and through mountains and valleys and cities and villages. This is a gift that I have been given and I am grateful, although it can be a burden to be so driven, and I do not take the responsibility lightly. When I write, I do it with my whole heart and mind. It is my way of knowing that I exist and that what I do on the planet matters. My hope for INTO THE WORLD, and everything I write, is that it will fight against irrational hysteria and turn people’s consciousness away from fear towards unity.

INTO THE WORLD

We are all strangers in a strange land, even inside our own skin. We can never truly know ourselves or even those who are closest to us, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, each in our own ways. And so life is essentially a lesson in the acceptance of loneliness, whether we live surrounded by loved ones or on an isolated mountaintop. Understanding that we are all in this same predicament is, ironically, what gives us compassion towards one another and brings us closer together.

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A Beautiful Journey and Remembering Casey Cohen

I have never, quite honestly, cared much about money or possessions or having a permanent home. My books, however, have been with me for over thirty years, a few more than fifty.

These Eskrima sticks have been with me close to twenty years. Other sticks have come and gone. But these I have wrapped and re-wrapped. They are ordinary, sturdy Japanese bamboo, but they have served me well, having clashed in many battles, enduring with me and helping me stand firm.

Over the years, I have found myself whittling down my earthly possessions, although I have never been one to collect many things. I am more apt to get rid of stuff, I don’t like clutter. Traveling light suits me best.

My books, though, are irreplaceable. There is not price tag that can be put on them. For two years I kept them in storage while I traveled. Taking them out again and placing them on the bookshelf was a spiritual journey in itself. Touching each one again, leafing through the pages, transported me to so many places.  Rushdie, Vonnegut, Musashi, Wilkie Collins, Asimov, Jack Vance, Du Maurier, these are some of my favorites.

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Some of my favorite books going all the way back to my childhood Bible, for which I have many mixed emotions.  

In my room, I have a small gathering of select books. When I travel I take one or two with me. I never go anywhere without Casey Cohen’s journal which he gave me when he died, filled with his favorite sayings, written by his closest friends. Sister Janet Harris contributed to the journal and he made sure to show me what she had written. She is the one who introduced me to Casey, considered by many to be the foremost authority at that time on the death penalty phase. I used to joke when I walked through Central Juvenile Hall with Janet, the Catholic nun, on one side of me and Casey, the Jewish atheist, on the other, that I was perfectly balanced. That balanced was gone when Casey died. He was her moral compass. This is something I have written about in Letters from Purgatory.

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From Casey’s journal, Sister Janet Harris’s contribution

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What Casey chose to put on the inside cover of his journal. It tells everything about who he was and why I loved him.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie is from Only Lovers Left Alive when she leaves Tangiers and all she takes on her journey is a small case with a careful selection of books.  I know exactly that feeling of choosing, it is so important.

Although I am most often a cynic and a pessimist, I believe there is a spiritual realm that we only glimpse rarely and through a haze. We cannot see the big picture. It seems the more we try, by gathering what we think is “information”  and “knowledge,” the more lost, confused and fearful we become.

So, I take it back to simplicity, something I learned in my marital arts training. Repeating basic moves, like reciting a prayer, brings peace, assurance and humility. I have found glimpses of infinity can be found through focusing on well-worn objects that have stood the test of time, and have been infused with energies; through powerful words (although there is danger in the power of words); and through intense physical effort, which can bring with it a complete calming of the mind.

I recently wrote a post for The Fix, where I talked about how our society is inundated with drugs and what it is doing to our children–prescription drugs as well as street drugs. This got a huge backlash from some people. They called my writing harsh, even dangerous. I understand the pressure to use drugs. It is there, everywhere, we are told we must drug our “ADHD” and “ADH” children so they can fit in and succeed. I disagree, except in extreme cases.

Happily Slipping Into Our Straitjackets

It is tempting to take a pill and think it will make things better. And sometimes it does. But it only puts a Band-Aid on the issue and propels the person o a journey to find the perfect drug, just the right dose. Instead of a journey to find the right spiritual practice.

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Training with my daughter, on the right, and her friend, on the left.

It isn’t easy to discipline oneself to train, to meditate, to face a mountain and climb it. But it is the most rewarding of journeys. Every day I could find an excuse not to train. But each day is a lesson in overcoming, each day is a lesson in perseverance, in the beauty of putting one foot in front of the other. It is beautiful, it is the best to live in that moment, because each moment is unique and will never come again. And then, the energy that we expend in those moments becomes infused into the universe around us.

A beautiful journey.

How Social Activism can Inspire and Promote Your Writing–All while Turning You into a Better Person

As writers and artists we have unique opportunities to change the world.

Check out my article in Night Owl Reviews about the win-win opportunities of social activism.

How Social Activism can Inspire and Promote Your Writing–All while Turning You Into a Better Person

We Are All The Same, and Thankfully, Different

Students in China Made to Take Exams Outdoors in Toxic Smog

I am teaching English online to kids and adults in China. This is proving to be an enlightening experience and my students are delightful. I love nothing more than finding out about a new culture and meeting new people. Funny how the differences remind us how much we are the same.

Lately, we have discussed the air pollution in China, as some of my students have been kept home from school because of it. Another one of my adult students works in waste management in Beijing and described the challenges of dealing with this problem.

Being able to communicate one-on-one with people in another country, one where the United States seems to have increasingly hostile relations, brings a deeper level of understanding. Now, I read that Americans’ feelings of good will towards Russians has dropped by 30%. It’s important to remember that we, the people of any nation, are all the same. Nothing has changed from day to the next, from one year to the next, from one administration to the next, in who we are. We all want to live a peaceful life, have a roof over our heads and take care of our families. It is the governments, the media, the corporations, the special interest groups with their own agendas, that create these widening gulfs of misunderstanding and manipulate emotions and play on fears.

Now we have new buzzwords, within the United States, polarizing groups of people, more and more. We lump people together inside a prison of words, and think we have the right to keep them there. Then, the other side fires back with its own prison of words. And before we know it, the words are so deeply embedded on our consciousness, we don’t even remember how they got there or why. The story gets repeated and embellished, always from one point of view. The other side retaliates. The words become violence, somehow justified because we no longer look at our opponents as people just like us. They are something dangerous and worthy of extermination–or at least worth of being taught a serious lesson.

Such as those “fly-over” states, spoken of with such disdain. It seems that highly educated pundits now find it okay to openly label country folk stupid. How stupid is that? Surely one of the most basic rules you learn in college when doing research is not to make sweeping generalized statements about an entire group of people? Mind you, the country folk do the same. despising the city folk for their privilege and education.

Amazing… the word stupid was banned in my family. One of the best things my parents taught me was to be very careful about using a word like that, because using it could well prove my own stupidity. Be sure of your facts. Don’t generalize. Calling people who are somehow different from you stupid (or any other negative term) only shows your own ignorance. And fear.

In fact, the whole flinging of nasty comments across borders is just plain, well… stupid. And that means it could well grow into something dangerous. For everyone.

Do Artists have a Responsibility to Society?

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Inspiring view from my balcony, Lake Arenal, Costa Rica.

It is my opinion, as an artist, that we do not have a responsibility to society. We are not answerable to anyone other than ourselves.

As artists our struggle is to be true to our own voices, not some else’s. An artist shouldn’t feel a burden or obligation to set an example for the entire world. They shouldn’t feel that they have to reflect the beliefs or opinions of a certain segment of society. Pressure should not be put on an artist to “set a good example.” Or to change people’s political or moral views.

The first books I created were beautiful and sweet children’s books. The Rumpoles & The Barleys series, which I wrote and illustrated, will always be favorites of mine. I am blessed to know they have been a positive force in the lives of children around the world. On the other hand, I always knew I had so much more to say and I fought for years to be able to say it. With my creative nonfiction works and the publication of the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONCILES, I feel I am finally an artist who is true to myself.

Artists create from a deep place inside. It takes courage to go to that place and to let it out. Sometimes this can be horrifying. Sometimes it can be beautiful. Sometimes it can be painful. Sometimes it can be sweet and innocent. Playful. Brutal. Violent. X-rated.

My art (and I mean my paintings and drawings and writing) is mostly fantastical worlds of escape. This is because I find the real world to be horrifying on so many levels. I don’t have answers to the world’s problems. Well, actually, the world doesn’t need answers, it is humanity that needs a makeover. I don’t think we have even come close to figuring out those answers. Or perhaps we are afraid of them…or…I just don’t know. Due to my personality, my life experiences, my spirit, I am compelled to create art that uplifts and brings a ray of light to the darkness. That said, my art can be quite dark in its reflection of my own experiences and the suffering that I see around me.

As a woman artist, once I was married and had children, I was told over and over in many different ways, all of them painful, that I should put aside my compulsion to create, for the sake of my family. That my art should no longer be important. I had a husband and children now. They should be my focus. Of course, they were my focus. But I did not understand why being a good wife and mother and being an artist wasn’t possible. I couldn’t give up creating on paper. I couldn’t give up my imagination or the stories inside of me. Not any more than I could give up breathing. This was a difficult time for me as an artist and as a woman. And it went on for many years.

At various times, I have been told by the men in my life, that they needed to guide me. That I wasn’t a real artist, I was just pretending. That I needed to stop because the amount of time I spent doing my art didn’t make sense monetarily. Once, a drawing that I had worked on at night when my family slept, was thrown in the fire the next morning because it was “worthless.” My nose was broken as a punishment when I painted a picture that did not measure up to my husband’s standard. My writing was ridiculous and why would anyone ever want to read it? I should give up. I was a bad wife and mother because my focus wasn’t completely on them. Anyway, I was far too shy and I had no ability to “sell myself.” On and on. Even when I was finally a free woman and I was seeing someone “in the business,” he told me I should leave it all to him. I didn’t have the experience or the personality to know what was best or how to present anything.

My children are grown now and I am without “entanglements.” I am traveling and writing. I embrace all my life experiences. It comes out in my work. It is coming out right now as I write this! I have remained true to my love of fantasy and now I can indulge it. Fantasy is what got me through the darkness. I love creating that darkness in my writing. And then filtering in those moments of light. I know how it feels. I lived through it. How tragic it would be if I had given up. To think that if I had listened to those voices I would never have written Key of Mystery or Book of Angels, or gone on this NIGHT ANGELS CHRONCILES journey.

We all live through darkness. We are all artists trying to express ourselves. Art is so powerful. It can uplift us. It can spiral us further down. A song or a poem can inspire kindness to a neighbor. Or it can lead to murder and suicide. It can incite riots. It can spark a revolution. It can bring reconciliation. I can’t judge any of that. I don’t understand enough about the forces and motivations behind it all, on a spiritual level.

For so much of my life I was bombarded with angry, resentful voices of society, telling me what I should do with my art. If I had listened to all those voices and let them guide me, I would have lost my balance and fallen too far into the darkness. With my spirit, with the way I see the world, how would I have faced each day?

How can I breathe if I can’t tell a story?