This last October, on a quite calm and quiet day in which almost no one was in the streets for some reason, it was brought to my attention that I had turned thirty. It was definitely an uneasy and a complex moment for me, one in which I found myself looking back at every moment of my life, and looking forward to everything else I hope to live. The result was this essay of an article which I had published in Arabic in Al-Masry Al-Youm. I had mainly written this article for myself, to remind myself of everything I believe I have learned about life, to give myself a renewed sense of my direction. When I published it, I had hoped that a few people would perhaps take a look at it, share a few of their thoughts and move on, much like any article before that. What actually happened, however, was unbelievable.
The article was one of the, if not the, most shared non-news articles of the year. I received an avalanche of commentary and kind words from across the Arab world. The unplanned impact of this article was beyond humbling.
A few months back I wrote an English translation, but never got around to finishing it. Here it is. Thank you for reading, and for sharing it.
I sit with myself, writing down these words as I ponder the beginning of new era of my life, one whose years begin with the number 3 instead of the number 2. I have felt nothing but panic throughout the weeks preceding this transformation, and my panic only grew as this dividing day at the end of October approached. Then, the day came and passed, and I remained, and my face remained the same visage I had one week earlier, and all that changed was my perception and understanding of certain matters. Suddenly, all the years of my existence - until that very same day - passed instantaneously before my eyes, and I found myself realising in a single moment everything I had realised throughout all of those years.
I never became an Astronaut, and even the US has ended its missions to the moon. And rather than becoming a policeman I wrote articles instead about “purging” the Egyptian Ministry Of Interior. I did not marry the American actress Winona Ryder as I had wanted many years ago, and she was even arrested for shoplifting, and I felt significantly relieved I had not pursued this marriage. I have loved once or twice, perhaps even thrice, and upon the loss of my loved one I felt as if the world had literally ceased to exist, and I experienced physical pain as much as I experienced the spiritual affliction. And yet, I am now a more complete human being having experienced those emotions, these sentiments. Then, I loved again, and lost again, and the affliction was less. And now, for me, love is something less innocent and perhaps less spontaneous in many ways, but it also became something more soaring and noble, something deeper, and that is one tradeoff I am willing to accept. I have also found that the sweetest of love is the love in which you and your beloved are the closest of friends as well, finding yourself longing to speak to her as you yearn to glance her face.
I have been let down by many whom I had trusted, and I have discovered that blind trust has no place in life. And I have lost friends and gained friends, and realised that no one wishes you become better than he is at anything or in any way. And I have learned that all people are people, and that we must accept them as they are without the expectation of them revealing an alternative angelic reality of themselves. Consequently, my love had been restored even for those who had let me down.
And I have also learned that there are no infallibly great supermen in the manner we used to see them once from a distance or when we were children. I have discovered that the greatest of men and women were nothing as pictured by others or by myself, but that those few of them who indeed approached greatness were those who knew they were nothing but human beings, and that no matter how much they gained of age they still had something to learn and understand, from the young before the old. One may gain in age and not gain in wisdom, and perhaps one’s wisdom might decline and one grows - if anything - more stubborn and egoistic. And I have learned, within this frame, that egoism is the most pernicious and malignant of all of mankind’s murderers, and that the worst of egoism is the one that blinds its owner of its presence, granting him with the imagination that he is indeed one infallible man of greatness, whose acts and his persona are merely misunderstood by everyone.
I have learned that every human being must think well before taking a decision, but that too much thinking could paralyse a human being as well, and that it is at times wiser to leap into the waters and attempt - in a magnitude of panic - to learn how to swim. And I have learned that there among people one who are masterful in seeing the negative in everything, in expecting failure. Such a person’s sadistic pleasure in life is in bringing down himself and those around him so they neither rise nor succeed in the same manner as he had lost hope in rising and success. And the greatest that I have done in my life was to get rid of such individuals after I had lost all hope in changing them, no matter how much I loved them, and no matter how treasured and inseparable they had been to me. And I have learned, in contrast, that there are astoundingly extraordinary human beings. If you asked such individuals if they could obliterate a mountain with a spoon, they would respond that everything was possible with proper thought and persistence, and they would even embark upon pondering the daunting undertaking in an inspiring mixture of curiosity and self-challenge. Eventually, some do find a crack in the mountain, and immediately upon striking this crack with their most insignificant of spoons the crack expands in all of the body of mountain to bring forth its collapse, proving everything is possible for those who believe and do not relent. And the greatest that I have learned was to surround myself by those I wish to become like or learn from, and the greatest that I have learned was to think of what I want and what I want to become, and not what I do not want and what I do not want to become.
And I have learned a thing or two about work. At times, we have to learn to love what we do, but the more fortunate amongst us are those who already love what they do. And we must become good at what we do, and not be consumed and distracted from the true aim of our endeavours by vacuous competition, and to find value in what we do - so that this value fills us with patience towards the absurdities of life. And I have also learned that knowledge is the only ally that cannot let you down, that talent without knowledge will not take you where you need to be, and that your “internal strength” and “gut feeling” as well as your confidence in your projects despite everyone’s rational suspicions is - at times - a form of illusion de grandeur rather than a form of persistence.
And I have learned that there are kinds of death, and that certain kinds of people choose to die while their heart remains beating, their eyes seeing, their bodies animate, and their tongues speaking. Those people walk amongst us and appear alive, and they - at best - are comatose. Some of them could wake up and reanimate themselves if they choose to break through this fear of life, and if they elect to realise that the fear of failure is - or of the admission of truth and accepting it and changing accordingly, both are - worse than failure itself. But I have also realised that some necessitate an outside bolt of lightening to awaken them, and sometimes this lightening has to be you. I have also learned that tears are not shameful, but getting used to incessant tearing is such.
I lived my childhood believing that Egypt was the centre of the universe because of its “special geographic location, as well as its climate that is hot and dry in the summer, warm and rainy in the winter” as we were made to memorise in schools. And I believed that Hosni Mubarak was the greatest president in the world as they had written in Al-Ahram and said on Channel one. And I believed that there could not be other good people other than those who shared my beliefs. Then I voyaged, and my tongue spoke a dozen languages, and my ears heard a hundred and twenty. I have seen Europe, America, India, China and the Arab world. I have seen those who insult the leaders and symbols of their nation in the media in the most developed of states and countries, and I have seen that society accepts it as a reasonable price for freedom. I have also seen that whoever had run against the incumbent president and spoke of his failure in front of the entire world did not find himself in a prison cell after the elections. I have seen political parties and movements competing to win the confidence and votes of its peoples, through competition over the service of the people, and without expressly dividing the people into outright allies and enemies. And I have seen - in utter shock - that some nations do not see that President Mubarak is the greatest president in the world as they had been writing in Al-Ahram and had been saying in Channel One, and that even some of those nations do not even know who Hosni Mubarak is! In fact, I have seen that many regimes attempt to convince their peoples that they and the country’s regime are the centre of the universe, and that their government and their leader are the grandest and most towering in the world. Then, I saw my own people - with myself joining their ranks - uprise to bring down Mubarak and his regime, and suddenly the very same Al-Ahram and the same Channel one celebrate the fall of the very same tyrant whose name they had been chanting days earlier!
And I have found out that borders are merely creations of mankind, that you are a one of mankind before being French, Chinese or American, that blind patriotism is an idea of the past, and that fate is the reason you were born as you were born.
In addition, I have met Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, the non-religious, the still-searching, and others. And I have met those of all skin colours. And I have found them to all be like myself, amongst them was one who was better than me and one whom I did not wish to become like. And we became friends, and I became wealthier in spirit as a human being. And I learned that mankind was one, that coexistence was possible, that we must ostracise the hate-mongers amongst us, that we can achieve with the pen and the word much more than what we can achieve with guns and loud angry rhetoric - and achieve that more rapidly as well -, and that we must rise above our leaders, groupings, parties and governments and their interests. In addition, I grew hateful of all attempts to categorise people into preset and pre-packaged ideologies and systems of thought. This one has to be a liberal, this one a leftist, that an Islamist, and her an Anarcho-Syndicalist, as if there is no one could believe in some blend of such ideas, or one who could give birth to a new idea, though I realise that people are not necessarily fond of any new ideas at their inception. And I have also learned that almost all of us, despite our differences, have learned the Golden Rule of mankind: to render unto others what you would for yourself, whatever it is, and to not under unto others what you would not for yourself, whatever it is. Also, that whatever you do shall be returned to you in multiples, the bitter of it and the sweet.
I have learned that you cannot help others unless you first help yourself. But I have also learned that the greatest honour that one could experience is to arrive upon a true serendipity of an opportunity to aid and bring joy to another human being.
I realised that it is not the right of any human being to exercise control over a fellow human being except in what prevents the harm of others, and that we are much stronger than the conditions we find ourselves in - more than I had imagined. I realised that no one has the right to silence someone, or control what he reads and knows, for he is nothing but another human being like he is, and he is no way better than another to control him had the roles been reversed.
I have also realised that Freedom is not only freedom from the chains of power and draconian laws, but it is also the freedom of the chains of the expectations of others of yourself, and your own unrealistic expectations of your own self. One must not confuse - as one often does - what one wants for himself and what those around him and close to him want for him, what society believes is the correct correctness for your and everyone: and that one must choose for oneself what one wants for oneself, even if it were all of the above. And I have also grown certain that a man’s silence at the injustice faced by another because it does not appear to immediately concern him or because that injustice might actually be of some benefit to him, both would lead to a day when that very same - or a worse - injustice would befall such man, and none shall come to his aid or defence, and such man would feel the utter bitterness of deserving what has befallen him.
I have realised that most of speak of their ideas in anger and loudness are themselves afraid and shaken. And I have learned that most people are incredibly and annoyingly confident in their ideologies, as well as their general political, economic and philosophical ideas and outlook on life, as if everyone around them were foolish, deceived, naive or just “bad” and they alone realised everything that is of genuine veracity. And I have realised that almost not a single human being knows how to objectively neutralise his human biases before taking a decision or adopting a position, for every human being has what would comfort him in his life, and what would take him to what he already wishes to arrive at. And I have come to know that saying “I don’t know, I am not sure, and perhaps I will never be able to be certain” is a perfectly valid and acceptable position, for I shall not know everything and I shall not understand everything, if I try either I would not find the time to do anything.
And I have realised that I must revise myself if I always find myself in agreement with those around me and if I find myself resembling them, or if I always find myself in disagreement with them and in non-resemblance. And I have grown certain that no matter how convinced and astounded by a man of knowledge or ideas I must think of what he says, and grow truly convinced of his words if he so deserves, and to think further and deeper of his words the more I grow attached to him, this teacher. And I have discovered that it is better to think before I speak rather than think in regret after I speak, for the word remains forever, and we were created with one mouth and two ears so that we would listen twice as much as we spoke.
I have learned not to envy another human being, and to be in constant appreciation of what I have been blessed with, and to remember whenever the going gets rough that there are those exposed to suffering much greater than mine. I have learned that the most valuable of what I possess are my health, desire, willpower and knowledge, and that one thing alone is more valuable: one’s family, true friends, and those who love you. As for knowledge: one must know something about everything and know everything about something. As for willpower: it should never be overcome except by the willpower towards something greater. As for health: it is not only a responsibility towards oneself, but also towards those you love, those who love you, and those you need you. As for your friends, family, and loved ones: fight fiercely for your true friends, that they remain in your life, be not too taken that you are unable to be there for them, and be there immediately when they call for you. Strive to bring joy and honour to your family, and to raise their heads up high in front of the world, no matter what it takes; and protect the honour of your beloved, and labour to bring this beloved joy whether in his presence or not. Those people are the greatest and most valuable of all that you may find in your life, save no effort towards making them happy, and make not a wrongly-placed desire for dignity build an imbecilic wall between you. Make no man or anything come between you and them, and if someone approaches you to tell you that one of those closest to you has caused you ill, then first attempt to attain certainty, then forget what could be forgotten. And if you cause harm to one of those who truly matter to you, then do not sleep without reconciling with this person, for you may not find this opportunity tomorrow, and you may regret it for the rest of your life.
I have come to the knowledge that life without a purpose is like a boat without a destination, left to the caprice of the angry winds of the sea. A dream is the most beautiful that life has to offer, and life without a dream is a skeleton with no beautiful skin or features. A dream that is not founded upon reality and realism will turned into a nightmare that will bring you down from the highest of heights, and a dream that does not challenge reality even by an infinitesimal amount is likely an insufficient dream. And I have learned to walk forwards towards this dream and goal everyday, even with a single step, instead of sprinting one day and remaining stationary another and retreating another; also, the journey is more enjoyable than the destination. And I have learned to accept everything that has happened in my life and what I cannot change anymore today, and to attempt to change what I can change, and to know the difference between them. I have also learned that I could become better, no matter how old I grow, and that youth and senility are states of mind and spirit before being states of the body. I have also learned to attempt to wake up every day a better person than the day before, even if by nothing but a tiny modicum, and to do it all smiling even if it is a forced smile. A smile keeps you alive, and facing people with a smile is an act of true generosity.