Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Travel writing: Freedom, Madness and the Deserts of Egypt

The American University in Cairo (Richard Byford)

The Rhet Herring, Issue 6 Fall 2009

One of the greatest privileges enjoyed by an academic must be that of taking a sabbatical, and I thank all of you who made that possible for me. Sabbaticals conjure up images of freedom, on full pay, where one can keep the hours one pleases; and on the merest of whims one can arise from the keyboard and step outside free to roam the streets or stop off in the bars to re-inspire that temporarily jaded muse. It’s not really like that -- although I along with one or two of my colleagues did joke about me in my garret, far from the madding crowds, alone with my muse. The muses in my case, it must be stated, were two very young kittens whom I had the good fortune to watch grow up when I was not huddled over my keyboard; and with a pot of coffee percolating away every morning and a good selection of classical music playing away in the background I was comfortable enough.

A sabbatical however, is hard work strangely enough, for all of you full of envy -- it is not without its pitfalls. For a start, if you're not careful, one can become assailed by those demons that lurk in the back of the mind. I discovered that when alone for long periods of time, many of the slights, insults, grudges, hurts and evils that I have experienced in my lifetime came bubbling up to the surface and I would spend anxious moments, hours even trying to work out the why and the who of many of the problems that I have suffered, trying to make some kind of narrative sense out of it all. This is dangerous as one becomes mentally paralyzed wandering through the house perhaps with coffee in hand sometimes actually talking to one self, and multiple identities begin to emerge, the interrogator, the detective, the bemused puzzled victim etc. This is a threat that one has to guard against; but maybe it is precisely this sewage which emerges from the depths of the psyche that is actually the raw material and the motive force of writing, providing one can discipline oneself. Herein then is the key. Does one actually have the psychological strength and the self-discipline to function on one’s own? Surprisingly, the answer was yes especially when it was a case of becoming engrossed in the reading of the texts of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, particularly when I was in a position to apply my knowledge of hieroglyphs that I had been studying over the last few years. It is though the writing itself, the writing process which helps one out, indeed keeps one out of the hells to which one can consign oneself. Once I started writing I usually couldn’t stop; sentences would appear in front of me in bewildering rapidity; and after I had revised the grammar and developed my ideas further, it was exciting to see in front of me the kind of text that I am more used to seeing when I am reading.

I have not told you yet, but I was writing a series of travel essays about the desert. Each essay was to be concerned with a period of the desert’s history, and part of the research involved visiting the places, many of which I was already familiar, that I was going to write about. Such places included the oases of the Western Desert, the wadis of the Eastern, the religious and pharaonic centres of the Sinai, and most particularly the massif and mountain fastness respectively of the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat situated across the sand dunes far to Egypt’s south-western frontier.

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