Archives: Newsletters

Vulnerable, Together: the Ocean and the Sailor

On the ocean, the horizon can feel crushingly wide. From the cockpit, we can only react to what the expanse reveals—and what it doesn’t, with frustratingly vague clues. As we sail through the tropics in rainy season—filled with towering thunderclouds and sudden, violent storms at any hour—we find ourselves often peering nervously into the horizon. As black clouds mushroom, we can only guess at many factors: how hard is it raining? Will it continue? Which direction will this storm go? How much wind does this storm cell pack? Do we need to shorten our sails? Now? If there isn’t lightning now, will there be? Should we turn around or forge ahead?

A sailing adage calls the sport ‘hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.’ But that leaves out the gnawing uncertainty of reading a horizon and the edginess that can accompany complete vulnerability to the elements.

Off the Pacific coast of Panama, Josh and I sit in the cockpit and discuss the darkening horizon. We left Islas Secas in a good breeze and clear sunshine one hour earlier. Now, I watch with increasing dread as the indigo underbellies of storm clouds billow higher into a wash of white above the mainland. These storms grow rapidly, packing powerful winds and terrifying lightning that could easily destroy our boat’s electronics, punch a hole in the hull, and electrocute Josh and me.

Maybe we can beat this storm, I wonder aloud. I sit on the edge of the cockpit and we watch the clouds for a few tense minutes. The wind increases on our bow, and our silence is carried away by the headwind that flogs our jib, leaving it snapping angrily.

I want to make it to the mainland and the promise of calm anchorage. It’s been two weeks since I’ve slept well, and I can feel my nerves fraying under my salt-stained skin. We have been taking shelter behind offshore islands, where storms and swell wrap into our anchorages in the night, causing the boat to toss and turn, leaving us doing the same.

We could stop at Isla Brincanco, a small, steep island between us and the continent, but it’s a “roadstead” anchorage. We would be potentially exposed to wind and swell, and the guidebook warns that the only solid holding (for the anchor) is at least forty feet deep—fifty-five feet at high tide. Deep anchorages are not ideal because they require we pay out extensive chain, at least 200 feet, and this is tiring to pull up manually. Plus it leaves us vulnerable to an invisible bottom, along which rocks and trees could snag our anchor in this seldom-used location, and freediving to unsnag the anchor would be at Josh’s limits.

I watch the leading edge of the storm, a distinct line of black sweeping south, giving us an idea that it’s traveling north—towards where we want to go. No. No, I don’t like the look of the clouds. I make our decision.

I pick up the VHF radio and hail our friends Jon and Shannon on Prism, sailing half an hour behind us. We have been sailing with this young couple off and on for seven months, and we frequently chat on our VHF radio to check in and to help each other. “I think we’re going to tuck into this island and see what happens with these clouds.” The wind picks up, and we roll in all but a fraction of our jib.

“Well, we’re going to keep going.” Shannon’s cheery assertion causes me to cringe internally. Am I overreacting? Should we do the same?

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Remembering Alexandria’s Visionary

In my first piece for the New York Times, I write an homage to the great Alexandrian scholar Mostafa el-Abbadi, who passed away in February. Several obituaries of el-Abbadi appeared in Egyptian newspapers, but most merely consisted of his curriculum vitae. No remembrance captured his colorful disposition and feisty erudition, let alone his ambivalent …

Do Whales Like it Hot?

I’m at the bottom of the ocean, and I hear singing.

I can’t see them, but their voices are clear, like a bird calling in the night. I wait motionless on the sand bottom under twenty feet of water as reef fish dart around me. I’m listening for whales. The sounds I hear are not deep, slow baritones: the whales chirp like a baby trying out its voice in gurgles and giggles. It sounds like a conversation between whales, talking in rising and falling coos and blips. I can’t help but grin behind my mask. read more

Twice as Hard for Half the Credit

A year ago, the Walikota [mayor] of Banda Aceh made headlines by declaring Valentine’s Day haram [forbidden]. “Many Muslim youth in Banda Aceh are sending Valentine’s day greetings via social media. And it is the responsibility of the city government to ensure this does not happen again…Muslim youth should certainly not be celebrating non-Islamic culture,” said Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal.[1]

You might recognize that name from a footnote in my last Newsletter. Illiza is the exception to male dominance in the political class of syariah law-observant Banda Aceh. After serving for seven years as vice mayor under Mawardy Nurdin, who died of kidney failure, Illiza was appointed mayor in 2014. She and Jakarta governor Ahok thus share two commonalities: neither fit the Muslim male mold that typifies Indonesian leadership, and neither was democratically elected. This could all change when residents in their respective cities go to the polls this Wednesday – the day after Valentine’s Day.

In the run-up to Democratic elections, it is not uncommon for politicians to deliberately create media events in an attempt to shape public impressions. Indonesians call this “pencitraan” – though I’ve always liked the slightly less politically charged phrase “cari muka” [looking for face], which describes going to seemingly absurd lengths to draw attention to oneself.

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At the Cairo Book Fair

“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads,” goes the adage. At the Cairo International Book Fair, where hundreds of publishers and thousands of readers gather each winter, everybody writes, publishes, and reads.

While the sclerotic institutions of state-funded culture remain conservative forces with an outsized role in Egyptian letters, independent publishers continue to push the limits and introduce new voices from within and without the Arab region. At the fair, you can find the latest catalogues of free presses from across the Arab and Muslim world, periodicals from a century ago, or quirky delights like contemporary children’s books from Syria or Yemen—that is, if you can find your way around the colossal fairgrounds. Since there is no map or guide—at least not one that’s of any use—let me give you a tour.
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The (Dis)Harmonies of Islam

Like any other spiritual or human endeavor, Islam is a plurality resounding in harmonies and, at times, disharmonies. I began learning about this faith and its people as a college freshman in 2001. As a journalism student at the University of Missouri, I was asked to reflect critically on media packages that paired footage of the terror attacks with …

Leading the Way: Reflections on Women’s Leadership in Nigeria

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”                                                                   …

At Last, Alexandria

One “is either a Cairo person—Arab, Islamic, serious, international, intellectual—or an Alexandria amateur—Levantine, cosmopolitan, devious, and capricious,” the scholar Edward Said once wrote.[1] I must be both. Over the past decade, I have had a love affair with Alexandria. Exit from the train station, and pop into a little toy taxi, a Russian-made …