The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

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I Taught People to Breathe

I taught people to breathe.

Breathe the proper way, that is. Where you draw the breath into your system, long and deep and deliberate, and then you stay put, be still. Then you let it go, slow and long and drawn out, no hurry or hesitation involved. It comes in, a steady inflowing stream, and then you let it flow out, a long and smooth whoosh. It can become a nice, personal dance where you are the dancer and the audience.

I taught little kids to breathe too. Their little breaths would gush out of their sweet bodies, so trusting and surrendering. They would let it all out, give it all away… and I could steal it all if I so wanted. But I’d be a nasty villain if I did that. And I know that nasty villains exist, and they were likely little kids as well, sincere and eager and trusting. Then the world began to let them down, one infraction at a time, then another, and another. Little kids learned not to trust. They started retreating, eyes not making contact, words not giving a response. There is a teenager. And I taught that one also to breathe. Played the monkey and the elephant and the snake and the lion. Breathe in, then out… don’t stop. Don’t be afraid or fearful, I am right here with you. There is love in the world, and there is sex, and there is intimacy. There is parental love, and the romantic kind.

I also taught grownups to meditate. This was my favorite thing of all. It is simple, people… NOT EASY. This is such a lovely, tough thing to grasp. And I’d spent years trying to clutch and grasp at the little meditation dance, so I had ample sympathy, an abundance of metaphors to help guide those interested.

For the first time in your life, there is no performing, not a thing to do.

It is sweet bliss.

And then I let it all go. Or it let go of me. I sank into the silence, no more eye contact, no more voice response. The farther I went, the more alone I got. The deeper I fell, the louder the silences. I whirled around in the wilderness, finally song-less, finally wordless. But the woods and wind saw it all. They silently rejoiced but I was still and unmoving.

My body had become large and swollen. I fit nowhere, I could go no place. I thought it was time to be selfish. I was going to let this fill up my insides and pulse through my veins, making them stand taut and shiny green. My voice began flowing again but the channels were hidden, and only a few could hear it. The song broke free of all chords and scales, it became a major solo orchestra, blinding and deafening.

And it was all only beginning.

Cairo, meri jaan

When I think of Cairo, I think of the sober days and colorful nights during the holy month of Ramadan. I remember the endless rows of tables laid out for the evening feast. People would pause only a moment after the last prayer ended, and then wolf their food down hungrily. I remember the taxi driver who offered dates to my team mate F who was also fasting.

The bustling sweet shop where huge pyramids of busbusa, kunafa and other pastries abounded: delicious concoctions of sugar, filo pastry, honey, rose essence and pistachios; the little stands in Downtown where huge skewers with shawarma were displayed; dark restaurants that served koshery, the only recourse for a vegetarian eating out; the mad traffic on the 6th October bridge; hijabs in the brightest colors worn in the most fashionable styles; oh-so lovely girls with the peaches-n-cream complexion and dark dark kohl-lined eyes; a family with 4 little ones steadily working its way through monstrous McDonalds burgers with fries and Bebsi (the Egyptian way to say ‘Pepsi’).

One of the sights I will always remember is that of blood gushing over the courtyard tiles of the little house outside our apartment complex when they slaughtered a goat and a cow during Bakri-Id.

Cairo is the city where I got my hair colored for the first time. And the only time thus far. One of the ladies from work was really enthusiastic about taking me to her hairdresser and getting my hair colored. I went along, and at the end of a conversation rapidly conducted in Arabic and punctuated with wildly moving hands and laughter, my black hair had a million gold-brown strands threading though. It looked better with time, and yes, I was mistaken for an Egyptian girl many a time.

The people at the bank gave me a new name, Basma. Now, I forget what that means.

I remember, the first two days that we lived in Downtown, a colleague N wanted to see the Nile. Neither of us thought that the river would flow through Downtown. But we asked and asked and asked. Everyone told us to keep going straight ahead, and then we saw the Nile. Flowing gently under the two bridges with shiny boats and lighted barges and cruises… the only river in the world that flows from South to North. In Luxor, we took a felucca ride over the Nile, and the boatman (who spoke excellent English) made for us black tea, the ubiquitous drink of Egypt. Spiced with fresh mint and sweetened with lots of sugar, that glass of tea marked a point in time where everything seemed tranquil, simple, and right. The Nile was calm, and so was I.

Cairo is such a vibrant city. Its sights, sounds, fragrances, seasons are unforgettable. But what touched my mind, my heart, and my very soul every day, five times a day, was the call for azaan. You could hear it no matter what part of the city you were in. Come that time of the day, and the devout few at the office would gather in the corridor, kneel, and offer their prayers.

The word for God in Arabic is Allah; they have no other word. The faith is that simple, unquestionable, and all-abiding.

Cairo is the city where I lost a little part of myself… and it took a while before I found it again. By then it had changed vastly, and so much for the better.