The Alpinist: Pure Passion

On my flight back to Switzerland I watched a documentary called The Alpinist. I gathered that it was a documentary about climbing, and given that I was out doing a via ferrata with Motaz and Janis a few weekends ago, the documentary caught my eye.

I expected the documentary to be entertaining to watch, and it was, but what I didn't expect is how this documentary triggered me emotionally, and how I felt that there was a lot to take away from it.

The documentary talks about the life of a then relatively unknown climber called "Marc-Andre Leclerc". This climber had, for some time, been quietly doing some crazy "solo onsite" climbs (i.e. alone, without ropes, and having never done the route before). He was the first person to ascend a number of very difficult peaks, solo. The danger he put himself in on these routes was nothing short of jaw-dropping.

So far, this is what I'd somewhat expect from a documentary on climbing. What really resonated with me emotionally though is how passionate Marc was about climbing, and the tragedy of him dying in pursuit of that passion. I can go as far as saying that watching this documentary made me rethink what passion really means.

Marc's passion for climbing felt.. just.. so very pure. Marc was not at all interested in competing with other climbers nor in even publicizing his climbs. He had no social media and for a long time he didn't have a phone. He started becoming known via word of mouth within the climbing community. The film crew actually bought him a phone, and even then he'd disappear randomly and often try to avoid filming. I felt that he genuinely had no extrinsic motivation to show people what he was doing, despite all the attention/fame this could bring him. What came across to me was that, for Marc, climbing was a state of mind - a form of meditation, and the intrinsic reward he got out of climbing far outweighed any external rewards. His passion for climbing seemed solely intrinsic - in other words, a "pure passion".

Marc's partner Brette is also a climber who shared the same passion, and together they were doing what they loved doing. At times they were living in a stairwell because they didn't have much money, and other times they were living in a tent in a forest in their town in British Colombia.

I was really moved towards the end of the documentary when I learned that Marc died at the age of 25. An avalance burried him as he was repelling down a summit near Juneau in Alaska. So sad.

It's a story of someone who lived and died doing what he loved. He only lived till 25, but he arguably lived more moments than many of us do in a lifetime.

Wochenende in Hüffihütte

Dieses Wochenende bin ich mit Freunden im Uri wandern. Wir haben eine 5-stündgine Wanderung gemacht. Wir sind zu Hüffi gegangen und haben in der Hüffihütte übernachtet.

Die Natur war toll. Wir haben Wasserfälle, Berge, Gletscher und Wälder gesehen.

Ich habe versucht barfuß zu laufen. Es war schön.

NOTE: This post is written in simple German to help me practice the language. Excuse any mistakes.

The Zen Retreat

I spent this weekend in Glarus, where I attended a 3-day zen meditation retreat at Lambda Zen Temple. I accidentally discovered this retreat two weeks ago, and given my interest in meditation and how little I know about Zen, I was intrigued to sign up.

So, what is Zen, you might ask? I have no idea. Contrary to my expectation, there were no instructions on what to do. We did sitting meditations, a "hiking meditation", and various "work meditation" sessions, where we did various chores around the temple. Alain, the Zen Monk, asked us to focus on the tasks we were given, but apart from that, no instructions.

I realized, as the retreat went on, that Zen isn't meant to be taught by instruction. But, instead, one has to contemplate on certain questions, and by doing so they will start building their understanding of what Zen is.

In my interview with Alain, I asked him to explain to me what I am supposed to do in the various meditation sessions. He then narrated to me the following:

In 8th century China a student asked his Master.

Student: When a student didn't raise a thought, would it still be a sin or not?
Master: Mount Everest.

He then asked: what did the Master mean?

Ignoring the awkardness of the grammer in that short dialogue, I pondered. I made some wild guesses in terms of what this could mean, but none were considered. My task, then, is to contemplate on this question, and get back to Alain when I have the answer.

Of course, in this day and age I can simply look this up, but that would obviously defeat the purpose. I'll keep chewing on this question and maybe one day an answer will hit me.

Ironically, this retreat was the most Swiss experience I have ever had. We were a group of four students along with Alain, his wife Monika, and his mother-in-law. Everyone apart from me was Swiss*. The temple, which is also their house, is a classic Swiss home, situated in a small 6,500 person village in a valley between heavenly mountains. We dined together, worked together, hiked together, started a fire in the mountains together, and had great conversations during our breaks.

I was happy to notice that my German has improved quite a bit. I am not fluent by any means, but I was able to hold my own having some more-than-basic conversations. Normally, when a group sees that I am foreigner, they immediately switch to English, but they were kind enough to try to speak to me in German on many occasions, and listening to them chat amongst themselves in Swiss German was, while not fully comprehensible, quite enlightening.

It was a very short retreat, and I can't exactly materialize everything I got out of the retreat just yet, but I am definitely coming back feeling some form of inspiration.

* Well, except one person who was from Liechtenstein, but close enough.

On Audiobooks

I'm not sure what it was that prompted me, but two weeks ago I started listening to audio books. And, all I can say is... wow.

I never really gave audiobooks a chance before, but the past two weeks made me realize how invaluable they can be. With audio books I manage to make better use of my down time. I am now listening to audio books when I am cooking, when I am stretching, when I am cleaning, when I am walking to the grocery store, and everywhere in between.

In those two weeks, I fully listened to Bill Gates's "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster", Feynman's "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!", and now I'm listening to Obama's "A Promised Land" as well as an excellent German audio course that I discovered.

I was never able to read this fast without a significant time commitment. Now, going through a book per week feels nearly effortless. This is very exciting for me.

This evening I ended up going to a portrait drawing class at Kunsthaus in Zurich. I had never really taken up drawing before, so tonight I ended up going partially to fulfill my curiosity, and partially to give my social life in Zurich a little boost.

I really enjoyed the workshop even though we had to wear masks the entire time. I had never stared at a portrait this long in my life, but the more I looked, the more I saw. The details of the face, the hair, the dress, the hands... Drawing was surprisingly meditative, and one thing I particularly enjoyed drawing, it seems, was the dress. Drawing fabrics with all its intricacies may seem deceptively simple.

The portrait we drew was of Suzanne de Boubers de Bernâtre by Hyacinthe Rigand

The workshop was only for two hours and I unfortunately didn't finish, but I decided to focus my effort on the dress. Not great, but not terrible. Also, I'll need to work on making the face, and specifically the eyes, more realistic.

Life Update and Hello Switzerland

This is the first "real" post that I publish in months. Shame on me…

Although I was silent on this blog, plenty of things were going on:

  1. We decided to shutdown Elk and cancel our Kickstarter campaign.
  2. I went to Berlin in an attempt to build a life there, get a job, etc after ~2.5 years of nomadding/instability. Details aside, it was a difficult time and that plan fell apart, but…
  3. Of all places, I found a job in Switzerland that I am very excited about.
  4. Prior to Switzerland, I took a two-month sabbatical where I:
    • Took horseback riding classes in Egypt.
    • Took a full indoor skiing course, also in Egypt, to prepare for the Swiss winter.
    • Studied quantitative medicine and did sixteen blood tests to measure various aspects of my health
    • .Did a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Sri Lanka - a profound experience.
    • Broke my big left toe in a scooter accident in Chiang Mai.
    • Spent three weeks at a spa school in Thailand and have become a licensed masseur in aromatherapy.
    • Started publishing and sharing some of my experience in video with my friends and on YouTube for the first time ever (see my YouTube channel). I'm not getting much views, but that's not unexpected and creating them has been a very enjoyable experience for me.I started learning German and now on track to finish the A1 level in two weeks time.
  5. I moved to Switzerland exactly one month ago. Since I got here I have:
    • Gotten a phone number, bank account, and health insurance.
    • Received medical treatment and my toe is now (almost) fully healed.
    • Found a beautiful studio apartment that I'll be moving into on March 1st.
    • Started my new job, and so far I have very positive impressions of it.
    • Last but not least, I worked with my friend Islam to release Phomo, an Android app for measuring phone usage. It's the first time I ever publish a mobile app.

Funny, when I started writing this post my overall impression of the past few months was that they were painful and highly uncertain, but now that I have enumerated some of the happenings of these months, it's starting to feel more like these were good months. Maybe this is a gentle reminder for me to always remember and think of the positive experiences.

The Kickstarter Eve

I'm now back in Cairo after 11 days in Berlin. There's a lot going on in my mind from that trip and certainly lots to reflect on.

I'm going to focus this post though on our Kickstarter preparations. Our company, Elk, is on the verge of releasing our first ever product on Kickstarter. It's a development board for building blockchain hardware applications and what we call "Decent" IoT.

Admittedly, I think our chances of success in this campaign are rather low. Having said that, I feel quite proud of the work we've accomplished. In some ways, this work is a manifestation of my childhood dream of building something technological out of the Middle East. It has certainly been a challenge building a blockchain/hardware company out of Egypt, and that to me makes this journey for me special, despite many of its drawbacks.

I feel very grateful for the people I work with and my friends and family out here for their support over the past few months. I am not at all regretful of this phase of my life even if this work doesn't pan out. Regardless of what the Kickstarter campaign holds for us, I feel content, and whatever comes next shall be more grand and more audacious.

The Wild Herb Tour

Today I attended a "wild herb" tour, which I can confidently say was the closest I've ever gotten to being a hunter gatherer. I joined Chris, our guide, to a park in Berlin where he explained in detail the vegetation in the area - very informative!

Yarrow: leaves and flower are edible. The stem can be strong enough to be used as a meat stick.
Flower of wild carrots
Horse radish (tasty!)
"Beifuß": Can be used as incense
Egg plums found on the street

Check out all the photos here. It's a work of wonder to see how resilient plants are and how they survive and thrive. Maybe worth exploring how that resilience can be used in, say, building more resilient software or machines.

The Case Against Egypt

It's been just over seven months since I moved to Egypt. I flew out of San Francisco with Amr, Isso, and Nader after spending two weeks with them to take part in the Techyon accelerator by Consensys. At the time, I was consulting Amr et al on Elkrem, a futuristic startup developing hardware for blockchain-connected devices.

I had a plan as I was going to Egypt. When I was taking that Turkish Airlines flight out of San Francisco, the rough plan was to continue consulting with Elkrem for a couple of more months, and then join Swvl. Swvl was/is an upcoming Egyptian startup, and we agreed that I would help kickoff their machine learning efforts and start out their Berlin office that they planned to open in early 2019.

The plans, as has often been the case for me, changed in the first couple of months of being in Egypt. I didn't feel comfortable working with Swvl, and I found Elkrem to be a much more exciting growth opportunity for me.

Since then, Elkrem has rebranded into Elk, and we're on the verge of launching our first product on Kickstarter later this month. It's both nerve-wrecking and exciting!

Committing to Elk though implicitly implied committing to Egypt given that the whole team is here, and I was OK with that, at least for some time.

Now that I spent a reasonable amount of time here, various factors have now convinced me that staying in Egypt may not make the most sense in my case.

Choosing where to live is a big decision and there are so many variables at play. Reflecting on my time in Egypt and elsewhere, there are roughly four components that I would now assess when considering a place.

Environment is the general setting that I'm immersed in within that location. This includes variables like my home, my office, my roommates, whether or not I'm living with my parents, my commutes, the air quality, internet speeds, access to healthcare, etc.

Experiences are, broadly speaking, the set of activities that I do within that location. That includes work, social gatherings, trips, parties, study groups, or whatever set of activities I choose to indulge in.

Relationships include all the people (and other animals) in my social circles - friends, family, professional connections, acquaintances, etc.

Connectedness is how connected I feel to the location. Several factors come into play here, including my identity and how compatible the culture is with my own. I would naturally feel more connected to a place that I had spent a significant amount of time in before, a place where I speak the language, and where my values are similar to the values of the people in that location.

There has been some slow developments within me that has decreased Egypt's score in my book. I won't be hasty and get into those just yet. I'll instead go through each component, one by one:

Environment (4/10)

I am currently living in Obour with my parents. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephews are temporarily staying with us as well. It's a big pro for me that I get to see my family so frequently and get to play with all the little ones.

Unfortunately, that's where the pros end. I love seeing my family so often, but I also like to have my own space. The family dynamic doesn't, for example, make me feel comfortable enough to invite friends to sleep over. I'm also unable to refurnish my room with my minimalist taste, or change the lighting that I don't like in the house. We also live quite far away from my social circles so it's really hard to meet friends on weekends.

I did try to gain independence when I moved to Maadi, a central neighborhood in Cairo), last January. I stayed there for two months with a Romanian roommate. The area was pleasant and the apartment had a nice setup, but it also was a piece of shit. The furniture was hideous, the kitchen was filthy, the internet never worked, and they started a construction project where they worked late nights next door. Not to mention that it was expensive (over $500 for me and my roommate combined) which, to me, is ridiculous given the price norms of Egypt and the quality of the place. I've seen over 20 apartments to move into in that area, and they were all trashy, expensive, and only accessible via a network of shady brokers.

The only way to have a nice independent life in Egypt is to buy an apartment, or lease one long term and redo all the interior from scratch. This isn't a commitment I am comfortable with at this stage.

Health is also a concern for me. I'm not happy with the air quality nor the healthcare available here. While healthcare here is really cheap, I don't trust the healthcare system here to care for me on anything of significant medical complexity. I'm happy to have my teeth cleaned here every once in a while and maybe a checkup here and there, but beyond that I don't have a lot of confidence. There are plenty of cases that made me arrive to this sentiment, but that's not something I'll dive into here.

There are some other pet peeves that make life more difficult here. For instance, it's really hard to buy nice electronics or fitness equipment since the selection is very limited. Most of the selections are offline anyways so you'll have to go to the markets to find them and be clever and witty enough to not get ripped off in the process.

Legally, I'm on a tourist visa and need to exit and reenter the country every few weeks. This is something that's nearly resolved in theory, so hopefully that won't be an issue anymore soon. But to this date, for example, I don't have an active driver's license because I'm legally not a resident anywhere.

To keep this post from getting unwieldy, I won't get into more macro issues affecting my environment like politics.

Experiences (3/10)

Experiences is the area I think Egypt lacks the most for me. Don't get me wrong there are countless beautiful places that I can go to - Sinai, the Red and Mediterranean seas, Upper Egypt, the Pyramids, etc. The list goes on and on. These are all great cultural and nature experiences.

However, what Egypt in general lacks that's really important for me are experiences that enrich me at an intellectual level. I'm talking technology meetups, study groups, quality conferences and talks, the opportunity to network with experienced people in my industry, science workshops, etc. I found these types of events to be very lacking here, and that is a huge problem for me. It hinders my development at a fundamental level, and in my opinion is not something that I can ignore at this stage of my life. To have an impact I'm proud of on the world, I need to mingle and learn from a lot of smart, experienced, educated people in my field and other fields. I unfortunately haven't been able to pin that many of them down.

Relationships (7/10)

Obviously the proximity to my family is a huge plus for me. Additionally, my Zayed friend circle is one of my absolute favorite friend circles, and I feel certain that I'll know that group of people for decades to come.

I'd say in terms of family and friends I'm definitely satisfied. Although, spending years in the West I would've like my friendships to be a bit more gender-balanced, but that's quite hard to achieve given the culture here.

Work connections are mixed. On the one hand it's not difficult to reach influencers like investors, for instance, but on the other hand it is difficult to build a network of talented engineers.

Connectedness (6/10)

I was born in Egypt. Most of my childhood was in Egypt. All my high school years were in Egypt, and part of my university life was in Egypt. My native tongue is practically Egyptian Arabic. There's no question that I feel connected to Egypt.

But, I am also a foreigner...

You see, Egypt doesn't give out citizenships, and for the first 9 years of my life me and my family were officially Palestinian refugees residing temporarily in Egypt. Fortunately at age 9 we immigrated to Canada and became Canadians 3 years later.

Citizenship aside, for the vast majority of my life I had strong feelings of connectedness to Egypt and the Arab World at large. I say "most" of my life because my strong feeling of connectedness to Egypt and the Arab World at large has waned down quite a bit in recent years. This is a very deeply rooted topic that I intend to discuss in depth in future posts, but part of the reason I feel less connected is how Egypt has been treating Palestinians in the past few years. Had it not been for our Canadian passports, me and my family would've had to deal with a lot of heat from the Egyptian government. Not too long ago my uncle and aunt came to visit us from Gaza, and the Egyptians made sure to exercise their power of making their way to Cairo and back a living hell, even though they're both in their 60s and clearly not a source of threat. I've also been noticing a rise in feelings against Palestinians from the Egyptian public in the past few years.

I've largely become incompatible with the culture here. I have undoubtedly been influenced by my travels and I personally value liberty, the pursue of knowledge, minimalism, experiences over belongings, caring for the environment, punctuality, discipline, and not being nosy. That's almost as opposite of an average Egyptian as you could possibly be.

The solution, of course, is to lock yourself in a "culture bubble". I've done that in large part, but that only takes you so far. You still have to deal with society, no matter what you do.

Anyways, this post ended up being a bit longer than I had originally intended. There's so much on my mind, particularly around the feelings of connectedness and experiences.

I'll start exploring alternatives to Egypt as a base, and I'm going to start with Berlin. Earlier today I booked a flight to Berlin for later this week and will be there for 11 days. I'm hoping that visit will help me freshly assess it as an alternative to Egypt's Cairo.