In search of existential morphine through her series, Morphein?, Sanabel al-Najjar will attempt (perhaps too ambitiously) to delve into our days and come up with conclusions about happiness and meaning in life.
Sometimes we wake up with everything around us already prepared and active in making us feel happy and enlarged. The sun wakes us up with its glorious morning rays, we just remembered that soon we will be travelling to the sea, a warm memory lightly hits us and so we stretch our hands in the air while still in bed, clutching our fists, gesturing that, yes, we are ready for this day. So, perhaps we will finally edit our resumes and send them to a couple of places, prepare a healthy breakfast (that does not include chocolate and pizza), do some morning reading, or even venture into the jungle that is our bedroom to clean it. The sense of summery vastness that we got the moment we opened our eyes was our happiness - that definite moment, regardless of the outcome. We did not go pursue it, or actively work towards achieving it; it was right there, ripe and ready, only waiting for us to wake up.
However, many days it is not as easy. This is because we are crippled by what we see around us in this world, preventing us from willingly getting up and looking for happiness. Our waiting for happiness is usually clouded by a very heavy ‘reality’.
Reality? People kill and rape each other. They scam each other, and walk past beggars and homeless people freezing to death, or minutes before having acute heatstrokes, while playing with their iPhones. People lie and cheat on each other. People pretend to be who they are not. They colonise lands and wipe out entire peoples and rewrite their history. People clap and vote to mass murderers in expensive suits. People give preferential treatment to beautiful women and blame the ones who did not ‘make it’. People ignore each other's phone calls and subtle pleas for deep conversation and human contact. People break up. Break down. Trade in sex slaves. Leave their children behind. Neglect their parents. Set up sweatshops. Cut family ties. Fight. Force children into construction work. Treat other people with superiority. People consume fanatically. And at night weep uncontrollably but silently - alone - only to wake up, wash their faces and take their showers, and head to wherever they usually go with a sad pretension of happiness that pains all those who can see it; see through their souls.
And sometimes my spongy mind cannot shake out all those thoughts.
I have been living in Egypt for about a year now. I had been wanting to go back to Egypt with excruciating desire for over six years now. Yet, I would be lying if I said that the experience had been anything like I had expected. I did eventually get exactly what I had wanted, but instead of a gust of euphoric happiness and contentment, for several months I was extremely irritable, impatient, and cold. Especially to the ones I love most dearly. I turned into a monstrous version of my old self. A monster that seems to awaken in demonic rage over every little detail not going right. Stuck in Cairo’s infamous traffic I usually feel a fire ball resting just a little under my chest and I would feel my blood boiling and would put so much effort into not screaming at the driver like a madwoman or opening the window and cursing all the drivers around me and the heat and the dusty air.
But you see, I used to love Cairo’s traffic.
The honking and the lights at night made me feel like blood still flows in the body of this space we call our world. I was completely struck and fascinated by the fact that there was crazy traffic at 3 AM six years ago when I was in those very same streets. I used to lose myself in all the flickering little lights in Zamalek and the felucca boats blasting the sha’by songs on the Nile that emit a strange feeling of familiarity and compassion to the onlooker.
And whether it was in Toronto, Amman, or Cairo, I used to love taking long walks while patiently absorbing every detail around me with contentment and gratitude. I used to have a way of talking that my friends benignly teased me about because of how passionate and, yes, loud, I would be when talking about something, and how my hands would fly around in urgent gestures and my facial complexion so ‘animated’, as one of my friends once put it. A friend once told me he would love to see me read off a grocery list as I would make every item sound so fascinating.
I had hoped for an adventure in Cairo, but for the first several months realised that I highly dislike a job that I had at some point believed was ‘tailor made’ for me, as well as the very conveniently-located flat in a stunning, leafy area in Maadi. I would take taxis for the shortest trips to avoid walking in one of the most gorgeous spaces I have ever seen. I scarcely enjoyed the food or uttered a spontaneous and genuine but animatic ‘oooooooeehh’ if it tasted good - which used to be most of the times. I did not get goose bumps when I read Yeats or Darwish anymore, or forcefully shut a masterpiece of a book because of feeling that I was ‘suffocating with beauty’. Yes, I used to say (and feel) that.
Cairo didn't change. What changed was my outlook and what I was expecting from the world. I turned into a realist, or maybe my mind was destructing everything so that things can be rebuilt in order for natural wisdom to be sought, so that chasing happiness could take place with punchy realness instead of a childish imitation of it. I had not wanted a utopia or a perfect life, but it seems that I have seen only the bones of things with painful reality and even a bleakness. Nietzsche would have told me that the abyss is looking into me since I have ventured to look deeply into it. I have been trying to find the ‘meaning’ of this life and its purpose. Along with striking and tormenting questions and inner monologues on religion, death, life, paintings, wars, terrorism, rapists and murderers, history, bloody history, literature, and philosophy, this torrent of ideas is also accompanied by a sense of finiteness. My monster’s best desserts. This killed every chance for a pure and infinite ‘happiness’.
Yet, this is only one side of the coin; really…
Because, in the end, people also love with irrational magnitude and sincerity. People give up what is most precious to them for their children. People have weddings and meet up for coffee. People travel to dangerous places to help victims of war, famine, and disease. People open up free clinics and save stray cats. Zorba the Greek. People comfort each other and give very long embraces. People say good morning to strangers and help them with luggage. People produce chillingly wondrous pieces of literature, art, music, and film. People give each other rides home and throw surprise parties. People dance. People invite each other to restaurants and concerts. People console and listen to each other. People lift each other up from dark abysses of existential crises.
And if you are extremely lucky, a certain person will look at you with so much love it could bury this entire universe, holding your hand when you are at your very worst - irritable and petty and squirming is self-loath, blaming them for everything ugly about people and the world; the same person causing you to tear up while you’re reading this undefined genre of ‘literature’ because you wonder about what is it that you have done to deserve this infinite crystal-true love of the most beautiful soul you have come across.
I realised, after I came out of this psychological well, proudly bloodied and smudged, that there will always be reasons to not be happy. But upon battling with so many demons, I realised that wanting to be happy needs to be sought with an almost violent passion. I also realised that happiness should not be awaited but chased.
So, we need to chase joy; keep the ‘warmer’ version of the world in our heads while we walk through this at times difficult path that is life. We should be brave enough not to expect happiness to be there, sitting on a chair by our beds, waiting for us to wake up. We should allow the beauty of this world to intoxicate us to ethereal drunkenness, even if that comes through hard work and not through a spontaneous (and automatic) impulse. We should have a knife-sharp vision of who we are and what we are going to do in this world; what we leave behind. We should have the commitment to dedicate wasted time for that, one day at a time. One day at a time.
Artwork: 'Don't Ask Me Why' by Amy Judd.