Heba’s Bath, or The Art of Letting Go.

Heba and her nine brothers and sisters were brought up in one room, under the stairs of the old Shubra building in Cairo where her father was the caretaker all his working life. When she was tiny, she used to totter along the pavement to the street-level workshop of Amm Ismail the ironing man on the same block, and sit under his bench, where she could observe the comings and goings of this main thoroughfare from a safe distance. Here she would inhale the safe smell of clean laundry and hot linen as the iron exhaled, steam fizzing off the scorching metal. If anyone was looking for her, she could often be found curled up asleep in the clean, crumpled nest of the ironing pile at the old man’s feet. By the time she was too big to fit under the workbench, her brightness and curiosity had come to the attention of one of the middle class families in her father’s building and she was invited her up into their apartment a couple of times a week to share their children’s private lessons.

Heba learned more in that apartment than just how to read and write. She trained her eye and developed her taste. On some lucky winter evenings, if it was particularly cold, she would even get to stay on at bath-time and enjoy the unimaginable luxury of soaking her whole body in warm water before going back down to the crowded little room under the stairs where one neon strip buzzed against the ceiling and a few grimy mattresses would be laid down each night for the family to take turns on, children of every age lying every which-way.

One of Heba’s older sisters met a Texan millionaire while working as a housekeeper at the Sheraton, and went to live in Florida – and that’s a whole other story. Heba got herself a proper high school diploma and became a secretary in a respectable local manufacturing company. Whenever she got a bonus at work, she bought a piece of gold jewellery. She had no desire to get married, and enjoyed a certain amount of freedom as a single, wage-earning woman in her twenties. Then handsome Amgad caught her eye and they married. They had three children. Despite a modest double income, however, their living conditions were only one step up from those of her childhood.

The couple lived in Amgad’s late mother’s ground floor ‘apartment’ in a dingy street off the Shubra main drag. The front door opened straight into their one room, where two wooden benches faced each other from windowless wall to windowless wall, a TV sat at one end and a computer in the corner beside it. A narrow, also windowless, corridor led to a crooked shower room with hot and cold running water, a western toilet, and an air vent out onto the staircase. Heba broke onto the central ventilation shaft at the heart of the building through an opening in the back wall of the corridor. She covered this new space with corrugated plastic to protect it from the garbage that rained down from the neighbours above, and turned it into a kitchen so narrow that when you opened the oven door it hit the opposite wall, but at least the cooking, with its accompanying ants, cockroaches and the occasional rat, could be done separately from where the family slept. She and Amgad slept on a wide single bed in the corridor. The three children slept in the living room, mattresses spread out on the floor between the benches.

After a particularly long day, Heba would close herself into the bathroom, turn on the shower, shutting out all other noise, and let all other sensation be drowned out by the feeling of the warm water coursing over her body. One day, she would think to herself every time, I’ll live in a proper apartment and it will have a bath, and I will slide into it at the end of the day and forget the world.

But then the company she’d worked for all her adult life folded and Heba was looking desperately for work. The cramped conditions at home with two teenage children and the youngest one growing fast, were starting to get on her nerves. They were getting to Amgad too, who was flirting with a secretary at work. Heba was sure that before long Amgad would be marrying again and she’d be the ageing first wife left on the junk heap if she didn’t play her cards right.

She got herself two full-time jobs as a domestic help, took all her jewelry to be valued, joined a co-operative savings initiative, calculated what Amgad’s savings were, and without letting on to anyone, set about finding herself a real apartment somewhere in her home district. Meanwhile she lost some weight, hennaed her greying hair, and started paying more attention to what she wore. Domestic help didn’t have quite the status of her former job, but there was one big consolation; a couple of times a week she got to take out an ironing board and sit, with a heap of fresh laundry at her feet, soothed by the smell of hot linen and the sighs of the electric steam iron, satisfied by the growing piles of pressed and folded clothes on the table beside her.

After four or five years and several false starts, Heba found her apartment. It was on a 4th floor, had two bedrooms and a balcony just wide enough to sit on. It also had a central living room and an entrance hall. The living room was marred by the presence of two square cement columns dividing up the already slender space, the kitchen was tiny, and the bathroom even smaller, a corridor-shaped space with a window at one end and a doorway at the other. But last she sold her gold, cashed in her savings, borrowed what she could, took everything Amgad had in the bank, and they bought the flat, in her name. Over the next year bit by bit, they did it up. The bathroom came last, staying as it was with its squat loo and shower until Heba had saved enough to do it just the way she wanted.

She measured up the space and, for several evenings after work, took herself off to Faggala, the bathroom supplies district of Cairo. She scoured shop after shop, looking for the short bathtub she’d conjured up in her mind. Amgad, uninitiated into the joys of the bathtub, didn’t take this obsession seriously and believing she was on a wild goose chase, didn’t worry about it either. But after a few fruitless evenings’ search, Heba at last found what she’d been looking for. A small, pink tub, just short enough to fit into one end of the bathroom and leave enough space at the other for a western loo by the doorway. It would mean replacing the wooden door with a plastic concertina one, and to get into the bath the family would have to sidle past the loo and then hop in from one end, but it was a bath and it would fit. She even found pink tiles decorated with gold ears of barley that would match. She paid her deposit and went home to Amgad.

Amgad argued, half-heartedly about whether a bath was really necessary and how little space it would leave for the loo, and the privacy issues raised by having a plastic concertina door dividing the loo from the kitchen. Heba held her ground and bided her time. A couple of Fridays later her husband disappeared off into to Faggala and reappeared at the end of their street a few hours later riding pillion on a motorbike, wearing the pink bathtub on his head, steadying it with one hand while he steadied himself with the other. The bath was manoeuvered up the stairs and into the apartment and Heba held her breath as it was inched into the bathroom and wriggled into place at the end under the window. A new loo was plumbed in a week later.


All that winter, on her way home from work late at night on the metro, Heba would anticipate the moment she would swing one leg over the end of her beautiful pink bath, then the other, and then slide her tired body into the warm water. There, relieved from the pull of gravity, it was as if her worries and burdens lightened too. She would lie neck-deep, for long moments of quiet punctuated by lazy intermittent drips of water from the tap, zoning out on the pink and gold tiles that came down and met the edge of the bath so snugly.

The following spring the daughter of a friend of hers was married. Heba’s own daughter, quick-witted, beautiful, a great dancer and in possession of a very respectable job, had already called off one engagement to a cousin when it turned he wanted her to wear the niqab. But despite the advantages of the job and Heba’s own history of marrying relatively late, there was a feeling that Rana, at 24, was in danger of being left on the shelf. The night of the friend’s wedding Rana danced her heart out. The groom’s best friend noticed her and a courtship began. While the first engagement had involved a lot of making up for their very humble accommodation, Heba’s daughter’s status had been significantly raised by her family’s improved living conditions. Very soon plans were being made and the marriage was announced.

There was a problem though. Heba’s prospective son-in-law was a security guard and body builder. He was as big as a house. And there was no room for a suitcase, let alone a house between Heba’s loo and the wall opposite. He could hardly sidle past it to get to the bath, and when he did his head banged the water heater above. Sitting on the loo for him was almost impossible. Large relatives from the countryside had already complained about the toilet arrangements, and Heba had seen off their criticisms, but with the prospective son-in-law it was different. Whichever way she looked at the layout she could not fit in the bath and enough space around the loo for a body builder. It was the bath or the bodybuilder.

The bath was ripped out and replaced by a shower that allowed for the loo to be repositioned and the engagement was sealed.

In Yoga we talk about prana and apana – the in-breath and the out-breath, the life-force and the waste, the stuff you don’t need any more, that you must let go of. With a build up of apana, there’s less room for prana. So much of our work on our psychological and physical health is about letting go of apana to make room for prana. We get weighed down by our baggage. Letting go allows us to make room for the new stuff to come in. When Heba told me she’d ripped out her precious bath, I mourned on her behalf. But she was already preparing for her daughter’s wedding.

A few years on Heba doesn’t have a bath, but she has an adored grandson. And her daughter has become a housewife, which Heba, even now that she has seen off the rivals for her husband’s affections and established herself in her own home cannot afford to do.

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Bessel van der Kolk and notes on the Zar

A few days before Bessel van der Kolk arrived in Cairo to teach on Trauma in January, I was at the biennial conference of the Egyptian Association of Group Therapies in 6th October, and went to a presentation by a professor of psychiatry from Al Azhar University about the Zar and its psychosocial role. We were shown video footage of the professor in his youth watching a Zar as he talked us through its various components, which he, along with many Egyptians described as ‘exorcism’. I had been pleasantly surprised to find an al-Azhar medical doctor who appeared to have devoted much of his life to studying this unorthodox but very ancient, Egyptian ritual, and I waited eagerly for him to pick out for me the elements that validated it as an early traditional Egyptian form of group therapy, as the abstract to his talk had implied he would.

I was naive of course. When asked what the affliction of the protagonist of the Zar had been and whether her headaches had been alleviated, he snorted, as if it should have been obvious that nothing useful could come from such a practice; ‘Of course not. This is nothing more than superstition, a placebo. The girl’s headaches went away for a few weeks and then came back again. It never works.’ He also dwelt on the great expense of holding a Zar. Unfortunately there wasn’t time for further discussion, but I was left unsatisfied; why would an outlawed and very expensive traditional healing practice persist over millenia if it consistently failed to deliver any results? I also wanted to ask the professor why he’d devoted so much of his life to studying something that he wished only to discredit. I wondered privately to myself whether his own taboos did not allow him to acknowledge the potential validity of the practice even as his curiosity opened itself to it; whether there wasn’t some form of dissociation working at the heart of the apparent contradiction between his beliefs and his interests.

Then Bessel van der Kolk, one of the pioneers of trauma treatment over the last thirty years, arrived in Cairo. On his first day he taught 200 people at Cairo University medical faculty.

Bessel and poster

Much of what we learned from Dr van der Kolk that day, and in the much smaller workshop over the following days, was the scientific basis for why making music in groups, particularly with strong rhythms, and singing and dancing and moving together (and playing with wobble cushions and gym balls, and putting on theatre, or even watching it, and doing Yoga) are such powerfully healing practices in the treatment of trauma. Most cultures have some version of one or more of these in their traditions; practices that build connections, establish rhythms, find voices to express hitherto silent suffering, and in so doing restore people and communities to themselves, heal trauma, quieten people’s demons. Bessel was keen to discover Egyptian versions of this. So we took him to Makan, Ahmed Al-Maghrabi’s Centre for Culture and Arts, in Saad Zaghloul, for their regular Wednesday night Zar.

It was all there of course, the rhythm, the singing, the dancing, the ecstasy, the intimacy between performers and audience enhanced by there being no stage, with many in the audience sitting on cushions on the floor, and the offering of glasses of tea and hibiscus half way through. Some of the people in the audience moved their bodies to the rhythms as if the Zar was for them, but officially at least, the only element missing was a protagonist and the sacrificial chicken or fish. After the performance, Ahmad, who’d been told about our guest and his interest, received us in his gallery office overlooking the performance space, and we sat in the gloaming on mastabas and coffee shop chairs with the sounds of the audience and performers dispersing below, while our host layed out an exquisite dinner. Bessel’s first question, ‘What is the Zar?’ had me butting in impetuously; hadn’t I told him that already?


‘No,’ said Ahmed, ‘a Zar is not an exorcism. It is a reconciliation.’

‘What? But…’ hadn’t the ‘specialist’ psychiatrist from al-Azhar confirmed what I’d already half known from ‘common knowledge’, that a Zar was all about getting rid of the jinns? But no, and I looked at Bessel, who was already beaming with the recognition of where we’d come to as the penny slowly dropped in my own mind.

Zar as exorcism is a translation that fits very well into the conventional medical model; that there is something wrong and we can or must fix it, get rid of it, cut it out if necessary. Psychiatry, as a medical discipline, has a long and difficult history with this aspect of medicine. While it may often make sense to cut out a cancer, replace a damaged joint or suppress the painful and debilitating neurological symptoms of a chronic disease like Parkinson’s with medication, such an approach to schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and depression has often led to criminally violent and irreversible treatments like lobotomies, or the often only temporarily effective ‘re-setting’ the system with electroconvulsive therapy (note that this temporary affect is apparently acceptable where that of the zar is not), or de-sensitizing patients to their triggers by exposing them again and again to the things that most torment them. At best, much of classical modern psychiatry seems to be about suppressing symptoms with medication rather than getting to the root causes of them – and along with these undesirable symptoms suppressing many of the feelings that make life worth living, so that patients are no longer suicidal or harming themselves, but are not able to live a full or fulfilled life either.

And yet since the beginnings of neuroscience there has always been another side to psychiatry – Pierre Janet’s recognition of the role of traumatic memory in mental illness and his development of hypnosis as a treatment, Freud and then Jung’s development of psychoanalytical work – and the whole field of psychotherapy now, as often than not divorced from psychiatry ­– all these are treatments where the focus has been more on an attempt to turn an unhealthy relationship with the client’s demons into a more healthy one – a reconciliation, if you like, or integration where there has been a splitting off.

Dr Bessel van der Kolk had a distinguished career as Professor of Psycho-pharmacy at Harvard. However, his insatiable curiosity, his commitment to testing what appears to work – however outlandish – in reproducible scientific studies, his deep distaste for any treatments that re-traumatise, and above all his desire to help his patients reclaim full, rich lives, led him to abandon that post and spend many years in the wilderness estranged from mainstream psychiatry. Only now as he hits his early seventies, is he recognized as one of the great pioneers of our understanding of what trauma does to the brain and how best to treat it, and one of the loudest voices in the field for recognizing trauma and particularly early developmental trauma as the basis for so much mental illness.

And having spent a few days in Cairo already, hearing people’s stories, beginning to understand the many levels on which trauma presents itself in Egyptian society, Bessel was delighted to discover this ancient practice of Zar holding within it so many of the elements that he’s come to recognise as healing of trauma. Pre-dating both Islam and Christianity by centuries, here was something truly Egyptian and potentially unifying to a divided society, where women play the strong roles as well as the men, commanding the respect and attention of a crowd for their sheer power and beating drums louder than armies; where men can dress up in strange rattling skirts and dance absurdly and mesmerizingly, all of them entering into relationship with the audience through the rhythms, musical notes, using their eyes, their voices and their bodies in dance. Bessel was delighted, but also dismayed then to learn that the Zar is not only frowned upon, but effectively outlawed; that those who would practice it as anything more than some sort of folkloric revival must do so in secret.

What is it about the Zar that is so threatening that it is a banned practice? Is it because it’s from a pagan past the modern Egyptian establishment is ashamed of and which must be excised from collective memory? Is it because the role of the Zar points to the existence of trauma, and acknowledging trauma is taboo for how it brings to light society’s darkest and most horrible secrets? Or is it that a practice that reconciles goes directly against the dominator culture we live in, the one whose colossal momentum humanity seems powerless to stop, despite all the evidence of its desperate failure. The culture where people’s contributions to society are valued in terms of how much money they make, how long and wide their red carpet is or how tall their pyramid, and where threats to the status quo are excised with tear-gas and raids, armies and bombs no matter what the human cost (think of all that trauma), rather than the mindful working of networks and dialogue and what Raimon Panikkar, when positing a model that could yet save the human race, described as the treading of ‘well-worn paths from house to house’. Reconciliation demands the more subtle, less grandiose work of finding out what lies at the root of the threat, or disease, or disquiet and working towards integration of the parts we are afraid of; the parts we wish we could cut out and ignore; the parts we dissociate from.

What Bessel had understood immediately, and what it took me a few minutes to appreciate was that this issue of translation, whether Zar is exorcism or reconciliation, cuts right to the heart of the crisis we face in modern civilization. Can we understand the difference between the two, and learn to work more with the gentler version, the one that requires such courage, patience and humility, or will we continue, consistently to leap reactively for the louder, tougher version that attempts to banish fear and breeds only more violence?


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Under My Nose

Last spring I did a week-long training in trauma-sensitive yoga with Bessel van der Kolk and Dave Emerson at The Trauma Center in Brookline Mass. Since then I’ve been exploring opportunities to work with groups of people that might benefit from my newly acquired awareness and with whom I can build up some practical experience. While, I now realize, I’ve taught many trauma survivors in my regular classes over the last 15 years, and done Trager work with others, I have been wanting to work with the sort of people who would never normally walk into a yoga class or go and get themselves a session of bodywork, at least not in Egypt. Continue reading

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Under My Nose

Last Spring I went to the US to do a week-long training in ‘Trauma-Sensitive Yoga’ with Dr Bessel van der Kolk and Dave Emerson of The Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass. Continue reading

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Gurus, Dictators and other cults

In Egypt, there’s little we don’t know about giving up authority to a revered, all powerful father figure, and the abuse this invariably leads to; in homes, in mosques and churches, on the streets, in police stations and polling stations. Likewise, it should not be any surprise to followers of the yoga scene to hear of the most recent yoga-guru abuse scandal. Such stories float up from the murky depths and make waves with predictable regularity. They are the flip side of that overused holistic metaphor of the ripples made by the pebble dropping into clear calm water; they are the shit floating to the surface. Amrit Desai, Sai Baba, John Friend, Kathsub Desikachar and Akhandananda leader of the Bihar yoga Australia ashram Mangrove Mountain, to name just a few. Now, most recently, it appears that the revered founder of Bihar Yoga himself, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, who preached and wrote extensively about many aspects of yoga, including the chastity he claimed to practice and prescribed for his followers, used his god-like authority over some of his more vulnerable female followers to force sex on them implying that this was part of their spiritual path.

The guru and the dictator have much in common. Continue reading

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Three Years On

Mohammad Mahmoud Street from Tahrir, 20th November 2011

Mohammad Mahmoud Street from Tahrir, 20th November 2011

'Martyr's Street, formerly Mohammad Mahmoud' 27th November 2011

‘Martyr’s Street, formerly Mohammad Mahmoud’ 27th November 2011

Mohammed Mahmoud Street links the downtown Cairo district of Abdine with Tahrir Square. During the Egyptian uprising 2011–2012, many of us who are parents of younger children and who got actively involved were navigating new territory; under what circumstances would we allow ourselves to ‘go down’ into the demonstrations? How much of what was going on would or should we share with our children? For my husband and me this balancing act was made all the more complicated by the fact that we lived in Abdine. We used to drive from one end of Mohammed Mahmoud Street to the other every morning to get to school. Unlike many of our friends, and activists whose work we followed who were more full-time revolutionaries than we would ever be, we could never just take a break from the revolution and go home. Continue reading

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A couple of weeks ago Peter Hessler wrote a long piece in The New Yorker about a Cairo dustman. It caused a bit of a stir in Cairo, and I wrote a letter to The New Yorker with some of my observations about why that might be. I knew it was far too long to be published, but I had things I needed to tell them. To my astonishment the editor of the letters page wrote back saying that they were considering publishing a shorter version and would I mind approving it. I was excited and deeply disappointed. What they had come up with missed the darkness running through my letter and all of its humour, leaving only a rather anodyne personal appreciation of Hessler’s work. But my small delight at being published in this illustrious magazine was stronger than my sense of authenticity, and after a few emails to and fro – as I tried to edit my voice back into the letter and they insisted on theirs – I approved their version. Now that it’s been published, I cannot read it without breaking out into a sweat and going pink in the face. I still want the letter I wrote to be read. Continue reading

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