Travel Journals

Cairo to Casablanca

Summer, 2010

It was close to midnight on June 29th and I was boarding the Tarom flight en-route to Cairo. I was living in Moscow at the time, had come to visit Bucharest, my new home, and was headed to Cairo to visit our team there. Yasser, his wife and 2 kids were onboard with me; it was his final journey back home since I was to succeed him in Bucharest. We landed in Cairo at 3 am and it looked like hundreds of people had decided to descend upon Cairo at the same time. Alas…I had thought we would sneak through swiftly at the crack of dawn. Nope. This is something that has not changed in my life. Wrong line-ups, wrong assumptions, wrong timings. Ah well…another day, another adventure. This was Yasser’s last day so I had to use our time well. Hello Egypt, good bye sleep.

Screw 40 winks…I was up in what felt like a blink. They say first impressions matter so I wore my best light blue shirt, a nice Canali pant, buckled shiny shoes, and voila! I sprinted my way to greet Hossam in the lobby of my hotel. I reminded him I would attend the “onsite” part of the “offsite” since I had so much work…and that when you are running a real business one must make real choices. I had work to do which could not wait…while the camels and sand dunes had been there for thousands of years…so really in no rush to enjoy them. With this mandate, we got to the Movenpick and had then business portion of the offsite. After lunch, I was assigned a “bus”. It was smoldering hot so I changed into the t-shirt in my gift bag and also decided to sport a head scarf in the bus. This was a clear hit. So I tried all different styles…Jordanian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Turkish, wow. It occurred to me just how very diverse this team was.

At 3pm, as we went deeper into the desert, I gave up my hopes of finding wireless. Here I was in the middle of nowhere and with 60 new faces and sand dunes I had never seen. Akos, who I had met a few weeks prior, felt like an old friend. The buses all stopped for a stretch. My torture increased. It was hot. I had work to do. I was wearing dress pants, and was secretly hoping we would land in an oasis with a nice tented 5 star facility like the one they have in Petra.

Nope. Wrong place, wrong assumption. Jeeps were getting stuck in the sand and I realized we were on a desert safari. Adventure. I decided to “let go” and just let life be. Soon we arrived at our half-star destination. A tent, a few chairs, a truck with a generator, a van, barbecue stalls, sand boards and a colorful blue and white cloth called toilets. Wireless felt like a distant dream, a mirage.

I saved you two seats:

The most innovative bathrooms:

I dropped all obsessions and let my spirit roam. Amazing what happens when we drop all the “control” filters and let life flow. I saw the most beautiful setting – around me was perhaps one of the beautiful tapestries of diversity. People from South Africa, Eritrea, Jordan, Saudi, Nigeria, Morocco, people of all ages, from different parts of our Mid-East and Africa team. I spoke to them, understood their journeys, their goals, their aspirations, and I was touched. By their warmth, their amazing sense of clarity amidst complex social and political structures. My favorite story is of a young woman who said she came across many angry clients in her work so she took it upon herself to build some training on anger management. Bravo! As M. Chammas would say. I came across several pearls of wisdom. It was still hot but I had given up on keeping my shoes and pants clean. My only reflection was just how sad it was that in much of the media, these experiences and cultures get grouped under a somewhat scary banner called “CNN countries”.

At around 5pm, I looked around and the team was on the dunes, just having a ball! Climbing to the top, and gleefully gliding down with baby dust storms along the way…not a care in the world. I saw jeeps going up the hill in a daredevil fashion, and then racing down in a few breaths. Seat belts beat belts. I didn’t ask. I was witnessing bold, daring. In a spirit that this region truly understands. I must confess that as a child I loved visiting construction sites and I particularly loved climbing the sand piles. So this was near and dear to me, as it was my 2nd favorite activity after buying the weekly Thursday morning comics. There is something very wonderful about getting all messed up in sand – and it has nothing to do with rebelling.

As the evening wore, my attention turned to something even closer to my heart. Singing. Next to an old truck were a group of Bedouin singers and I was mesmerized by their voices, how they could sit on the sand and in a jiffy, turn the desert into a place with a soul. I walked over and stood by them, watching in solitude. I listened with all my senses and it made my heart sing. I saw people circle around the musicians and start dancing, men with men and women with women but often mixing as well.

And then let the music play:

The magic of that rhythm gets…

This was simply put my most unforgettable experience of the entire desert safari. I took a picture of it and it was on my desktop for several months. After about an hour, the music session really “jammed” and then the singer in the purple robe got up and gave himself to the world, dancing like all that mattered was the present.

And the man got up and…

I was speechless. You do not need a stadium of 100,000 people and the Stones to create magic. Beauty is where you find it.

Wednesday night…

Indeed, and I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets, it was everywhere. Everyone circled the tent…crackling barbecues, friendly chatter, lights and lamps. The food did not really matter to me (this says a lot from someone whose biggest weakness is food, a Ladak DNA thing). Islam means brotherhood and what I witnessed was harmony, a congregation, peace, love of life. I walked off to a quiet place and collected my thoughts. The skies that spoke to me through the moon and the stars said so much. They sparkled with hope and danced to the music. I loved this experience and was grateful to be a part of it.

Dinner was being served…

Later that night as we went back I sat in the mini-bus with my Moroccan friends trying to hold on to my seat as my I was trying to get connected to a network. As luck would have it, several people were trying to get a hold of me because it was year-end and our EE shipments could not be processed. As someone who prides themselves in being accessible 7×24, this was a fantastic lesson. We are all dispensable – because the issues got solved by some other people. Lesson learned: we all need to unplug, and allow ourselves to avail the beauty of life.

These 24 hours represent a turning point in my experiences in the Middle-East.

Spring, 2011

Since that memorable encounter in the desert, I have had a few subsequent trips to Cairo and one to Casablanca. The journey continues. In Cairo, my friends Neal and Salma have taken me to places I would have not gone. The most memorable experience was during Ramadan. We went out at about 10.30 pm. Yes, PM. We started with a walk in the bazaar, walked through the old parts, walked through the newly resurrected parts of Cairo and immersed ourselves in a Cairo that I had not seen. On the one hand, the “buzz” of Ramadan, which evoked powerful childhood memories of Eid, a much anticipated holiday in my hometown of Kigoma – on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As children, we would be up at the crack of dawn and walk on the railway tracks to greet the 6.30 am daily train….whistling it’s way in a the way from Dar-es-salaam… Now back to Khankhalily.
Midnight shopping for gifts lest someone gets left out on Eid. Old palaces where musicians now practice and mosques like Imam Hussein where people go for pilgrimages. Silver lamps, book binding stores, and ringing loud and clear wherever we walked, the legendary voice of Oum Kalsoum.

Ditto in Casablanca. My dear colleague Loubna had arranged for a day visit to Fez. For those who have not visited this is a world jewel, a world heritage site. Built in the 8th century, and then twice again, the old city has not lost its charm, its authenticity, its traditions. The University of Al-Karaouine, founded in AD 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. It has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa”. This is said to be founded by a Tunisian woman. Fes el Bali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

History lies within these walls

Its medina, circled by 15 km of walls, 300,000 people and 9000 alleys, is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area. One has to move over to allow the donkeys to have the right of way. The leather tanneries, the threading of beautiful cloth, are all still done in its original form. The ecology hugging this beautiful town is awe-inspiring. Like Toledo in Spain, here’s a culture that had Jews, Christians and Muslims live together. The flowers and the rolling hills make it obvious why the French sought this place out.

In retrospect with the recent political events in the Middle-East, I have come to appreciate even more deeply the richness of diversity across Middle-East.

Fez, a paradise…cherished and loved by many

So Biso, here’s the story I promised…somewhat delayed but timely. March is the month when we celebrate women’s day around the world and in some cultures, it is also mother’s day. March is the month when spring starts to seduce us with nature and all its abundant beauty. As my dear friend Samer said, in many parts of the Arab World the 21st of March marks the beginning of the spring. 3 years ago, I was in Damascus, mesmerized by its magnificence, its magic, it’s mystery. So here’s to Navroz, or Nowruz symbolizing a new year. Please join me in a prayer for peace, and hope that we celebrate diversity in its true form, where and how it exists.

Sunset… the End