The Beginners Mind

This article was earlier published in online magazine Tara Al Bahr (Overlooking the sea) www.taralbahr.com. The question was: can you describe your entry into Alexandria, from a personal perspective. Yet I think that this article might be relevant to a much wider audience, therefore I also place it here. Since the way of looking that I try to describe is not limited to personal experience but has a lot to do with how we make sense of this turbulent and complex business era that we have entered.

When describing my introduction to Alexandria, how I got to know it, and how it became familiar – until I even started to question which country feels more like home – the first thing that I think about is the ‘beginners mind’, and the story of how I found it, lost it and am constantly re-finding it.

The beginners mind is actually a concept, derived from Zen Buddhism. I did not make it up, but I was all in it, those first months in Alexandria. I remember being so curious after people, history, stories, concepts, religion, politics, everything! It was an openness of inquiry that was free of judgement, free of fear, I really wanted to know and understand with a light hearted spirit that has nothing to hide and nothing to defend. It felt like play. Which also had to do with where I was at in my life. I had left my home before for a longer time, then it was to discover if people could be loved anywhere. India taught me yes. When I went to Egypt it was because I knew that people could be loved everywhere, which is a very different motivation.

In those first months, walking through Alexandria I could not take anything ‘seriously’ the way ‘serious’ people do. I could only be astonished by what I encountered. The ability to look with a fresh eye to each person with genuine curiosity is the most amazing thing. It is not necessarily naive but has no reason to distrust anything or anyone. The beginners mind is also open to being wrong, in a way that doesn’t hurt because there isn't that much identity invested in being right yet. I love the beginners phase of exploration and curiosity. I guess it was the permission to access that state of mind, that first pulled me to Egypt. I remember being initially astonished that you can take food to cafe’s without the waiters being angry, and that one sandwich of beans can keep you going for almost the whole day. I noticed that people can say I love you after one hour, and I miss you after two. That nobody asked me about my work, but everybody about my love life. That sidewalks are rarely used, and that when people cross the street, it is in that relaxed pace, as if they have all the time in the world. I loved how easily I got invited to a strangers house, and how I felt taken care of by everyone. I also loved how I felt about myself. Being open to seeing others anew, enabled that same ability to myself. I remember wondering, I can really reinvent myself? There is no blame? What if I really were only loyal to love? I found that just drinking coffee slowly in the morning can be the most joyous thing, while looking out over the sea, watching how sailors made patters in the bay, imagining Crete or Cyrus, somewhere far away. And, since I found myself in a group of people, in which my uncensored self and the longing to fit in, did not contradict each other, I felt home easily in Alexandria.

And then some time ago, a young man asked me a beautiful question, it was about how to keep his soul alive, when there seemed to be so little that could truly nourish him. He somehow became representative of all these amazing people I meet, and the conversations we have. He asked me at a point when I also wasn’t sure myself at all. I was fed up with everything in Alexandria and Egypt.

Since, slowly as it alway is, familiarity crept in, a sense of knowing, of functioning in a routine took over. Maybe even the feeling of being an expert at things inhabited me at times. I started experiencing the social involvement in each others life as confining, and got irritated by how small circles of people are being kept small by invisible divisions and social exclusions. The streets were not new anymore. I was starting to get annoyed by the restrictions to my wardrobe. The garbage on the streets, for me became a product of human stupidity and I now understood what my harassers were actually saying. The initial progress in language started to go into its cyclical periods of stagnation. And I was starting to sense the collective depression I found myself surrounded by; a feeling of fatalistic negativity. The constant reoccurring of insane events that make no logical human sense became part of my news diet. Many of my friends left the country and I started to know people in prison. I usually find it hard to voice any of this for the reason that ‘your’ past past is not mine, nor do I entirely commit myself to being part of ‘your’ future either. Therefore I have no right to say anything. But it does affect me and I wonder, how long do I have to live somewhere in order to become part of ‘your’ collectivity? In moments like that I feel like an outsider, or maybe what is meant with ‘a foreigner’.

Usually, I don’t feel like a foreigner at all. Since yes, I am different in many ways, but why not attribute that to personality, instead of clinging to cultural identifications? I can feel the opposite of a foreigner however, in the presence of other foreigners, especially in the presence of a specific kind. People that are somehow stuck in their ways. And although they might be intellectually way beyond me, there is a certain ignorance to them that despite or maybe because of their education, has inhabited them. They look with an anthropological view that, I am sure needs thorough premeditation. They are funny to watch, maybe because of the seriousness of their frown, or the well rehearsed deepness of their question. I see them in the city because they do research, or field study. They are here to make ‘us’, understandable to the rest of the world. A world that is eager to read that ‘Arab men can also be vulnerable’ and that women live their lives as ‘empowered’ individuals. In fact, I don’t know exactly why there is a certain humour to this, as if I cannot take their work very seriously. Maybe because of the complexity they think is needed to arrive to the ease they are trying to present. Because really, it isn't all that complicated. Well, actually it is. But in order to get that, you yourself need to be very simple first, and drop all preconceived ideas about yourself and the world.

Continuing to question and loosen up new judgments that are trying to nest in my mind, or uncovering old ones, is what Alexandria has taught me and is still teaching me; to really keep my biases adrift. I practice the internal muscle that can sense truthfulness.

Now three years later, I am not in that irritated phase anymore. Maybe because I decided that I want to live here. Really live in an alive way. And since I could live anywhere, feeling a victim of the circumstance yet staying, is just a sign of sheer stupidity, so I daily try to return to the beginners mind. Because there is a way to look with the eyes of a child, without having to reinvent the wheel over and over again. To not judge yet also know what is good and not conducive to my personal joy in life. I found my way here, with the streets, in being with people, failing to please all. I found that I am not functioning well in relationships where “I miss you is taken lightly” and “I love you has no meaning”. I learnt that saying ‘no’ can be the most loving thing, only that way saying yes actually has meaning. The beginners mind has introduced me to a certain humour that is not denying misery and setback, yet can smile like a wise child, without that excruciating bitterness that cynical humour can have. A humour that can say: “look at us weird, happy, lost, beautiful and hurting people. We have the ability to make our- and each others lives difficult and easy, look at how we are muddling about. How incredible!”

The Zen saying goes, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.” Therefore I decided to never become an expert and use my foreignness as an entry into continuous bewilderment, because this country is giving a lot of reason for bewilderment. I can debate it internally as long as I want, but I see the world as I am. And I want to remain a beginner, always. It might not be easy – I know it is not easy – and I loose it often enough, but living here is teaching me to return to it each time again, for which I am very grateful. And if I don’t, I will loose my will to live, in this weird turbulent prelude to a new time, where sanity and insanity are struggling for survival.


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©Photography by Yasmine Huissein or Omar Adel. If you are curious about their work, let us know.