When was the last time you did nothing? I mean really and truly nothing?
If you’re anything like me, then “nothing” is not an activity that you engage in regularly. I feel this need to be constantly surrounded by people, with a long list of things to accomplish. Sitting still is not something I do very well. Last semester, the closest I came to doing nothing I think was driving 13 hours from Oxford, Ohio to my parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota. I would complain about how busy I was, but the truth of the matter is that I was never still because I chose not to be.
I think stillness in general makes me uncomfortable. Part of it is my extroverted, energetic personality I think, but a big part of it is cultural. I think aversion to stillness is a defining trait of Western society—one that I have inherited from my American side and that becomes all the more acute when I am on American soil.
Think about it. In America, we squirm at pregnant pauses in conversation, we cover white walls with paint or pictures, and we fill planners (or iPhones if you’re cool like that) with appointments. We wear watches that keep time down to the second and from a young age, we are taught how to responsibly “manage time” as though it were a wild beast that we needed to train. We of course, understand the need for leisure and good social interaction, but these quickly become just another sort of appointment: we carve out special hours for physical exercise and naps, and we schedule coffee dates with friends in the in-between spaces in our busy days, conveniently taking care of any otherwise useless “free time.” We value efficiency, strategic planning, and accomplishment. We don’t really value doing nothing.
This whole value system is flipped on its head though the minute you venture outside of this realm we call “the first world.” Nowhere is this more apparent than here in Egypt. Egyptians view time, and by extension, life, in a completely different way than Westerners do. It drives all the white people positively batty, much to my amusement.
I got to thinking about time and busyness and all this last week when my friend Raustin and I decided to go for a little cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Kom Ombo in the south of Egypt. We hired two Nubian boatmen to take us on their old-fashioned sailboat felucca on a two-day, two-night trip down the river. Nile cruises are a common activity in this part of the country, though most tourists opt to take big, lumbering, boxy cruise boats with 5-star restaurants, pools and plush rooms. These big boats zoom down the Nile, getting from Aswan to Luxor in as little as 3 nights. Onboard, their passengers watch the river go by as they sip their ice-cold lemonades from the deck, and the crew provide them with entertainment and activities throughout the cruise so as to keep them from getting restless.
We opted for the student budget option. Instead of 5-star restaurants, we got simple potato stews and fish cooked to perfection over a tiny gas burner. Instead of pools, we got the Nile itself, clear as glass stretching on for miles and miles, icy cool and inviting. And instead of plush rooms, we got one thin mattress to share between the four of us and thick, musty-smelling blankets to keep us warm. While we watched the big, boxy cruise ships lumber past, hurrying for who-knows-what-reason, we simply floated, carried by the current and the wind.
At first, I found myself squirming every so slightly at our slow pace. I am not used to being able to stare at the same patch of grass for very long whenever I am in a moving vehicle. But I realized that time and speed needn’t have any hold over me here. We had nowhere in particular we were going and no reason to get there in any sort of a hurry. Our Nubian captains certainly didn’t think so. Every few hours or so, they would tie our vessel to a rock and take off to visit some village or another under the pretext of picking up some supplies, leaving us to mind the boat and keep ourselves entertained. And it was thus that I found myself doing absolutely nothing. I drank a good deal of tea, read a book and a half and slept an average of 15 hours a day. I loosely kept track of time using the position of the sun in the sky, but it really didn’t matter much what hour it was, let alone what minute. I had no appointments to keep, no schedule to mind. After the sun set, we saw by the light of a huge full moon and a small candle until we decided it was time to sleep some more. I was aware of time passing but instead of trying to master it, I was simply floating along on it.
Sort of like the river, actually. The Westerners tried to harness the river and conquer it into submission in their big cruise boats, while it simply flowed beneath us, connected to us, but somehow very much apart from us. Likewise, in the West, we fight with time, we wrestle with it, squeeze it and try to box it into a force that can be used to suit our needs. But in Egypt and much of the rest of the world, it is seen as an entity that can be ridden, but not coerced. They are aware of time, just as we were aware of the river; aware that it flows, that it affects us. So they allow it to flow beneath them, but on-board their sailboat, they go about life as they please. They enjoy several cups of tea and many rounds of shisha. They talk and listen and enjoy each other. And yes, they work diligently as well.
Time just doesn’t have the same sort of hold over them that it does over us in the West. In an attempt to master time, I fear we have become its slaves. And when we whiz along against the current, watching life from inside a box, we miss out on the cranes looking for fish among the reeds, the boys splashing in their rowboats and the glorious feeling of taking a nap for no other reason than because you feel like it.
So I recommend doing nothing sometime if you dare. Defy your Western understanding of time just long enough to see if maybe our Egyptian friends might not be so crazy after all for daring to show up 30 minutes late to an appointment.