My story

AuthorGrowing up in Egypt to become a vegetarian non-believer is an unfortunate way to turn out. At least that’s if you are keen to foster a sense of “fitting in” among your fellow citizens. After all, vegetarianism remains incomprehensible; atheism unthinkable.

Still, presuming you keep to yourself, you are a lot less likely to be harassed for being a vegetarian non-believer in Egypt than for being Baha’i, Shia, Jewish, gay, or even Coptic (though, of course, more generally being poor, or worse, being a woman, entails a whole other level of daily persecution).

So being a male vegetarian non-believer is actually not too bad. Moreover, having the unearned privilege to get the life experiences and education necessary to reach your own, relatively independent conclusions about matters of animal welfare and life, the universe and everything is … well, very fortunate, though all too rare.

These life experiences, in my case, started with an unquenchable fascination with psychic powers at the age of 12. Initially, my fixation was on “black magic”, though this obsession did not last long.

You see, somehow, I managed to get my hands on this mighty tome of an old book written in cryptic Arabic. It appeared to be a translation from Sanskrit, and in it were quite a few bizarre and disturbing “spells”—from summoning jinns to help you escape prison, to having them kill someone for you.

The spells entailed rituals like standing naked on the Quran while bathing yourself in milk and reading out tripe incantations. The mere thought of performing something like that horrified me. However, the one spell I did try was right before my end of year mathematics exam (which I hadn’t even attempted studying for). The spell for that was simple: reading out a few verses from the book seven times right before the test.

I don’t remember what the words were, but I do remember the 11% final grade I got in my report a few months later.

Having given up on black magic, I moved on to meditation. If jinns weren’t going to give me invincible powers, I would develop my own “yogic” ones. I went to Canada for the summer that year, and there insisted that I attend a meditation workshop. I met a wonderful Buddhist lady, and in the months that followed, sitting crossed legged while trying to focus on my breath was pretty much all I did.

Over the next two years, I read everything I could about psychic powers, and would spend hours staring at a nail suspended in the air from a thread, trying to telekinetically move it with my meditation-honed mind. It never budged, and as puberty brought with it some hint of mental maturity, I began to develop an interest in the more spiritual side of all these things I’d been reading about. More intensely, though, I began to develop a keen interest in the idea of Truth with a capital T. What was it? And what does it mean for a “perfect being” to exist?

Between the ages of 14 and 16, I intermittently dabbled in a mix of Hindu philosophy, New Age practices, and Sufi asceticism. I was particularly attracted to Sufism, since it offered a way to keep the spiritual hocus pocus of mystical traditions, while being rooted in an Islamic background that felt more homely (and less heretical). At the height of this Sufi phase, instead of meditating on my breath, I would recite over and over in my head the mantra la ilaha illa allah—there is no God but Allah.

The idea was ultimately to destroy my ego and let whatever divine spark I thought we all had within us shine through me—and ideally bring with it a host of psychic powers that I could use to seduce women with. For, despite my insistence during this time on taking cold showers, fasting for three days at a time, and sleeping on the hard floor—all attempts to kill the ego’s desires for carnal indulgences—I still dry humped my girlfriend senseless and occasionally drank vodka right out of the bottle.

By 17, enlightenment had still not come. I blamed it all on the distractions of living in Cairo with my family. I had given up on Islam as an organized religion by then, and while I was still experimenting with a philosophic cocktail of New Age, Sufi hedonism, I wanted something more concrete.

So when I went to university abroad, I majored in philosophy and psychology and minored in religious studies. There, living alone in a tiny studio, I attempted to redouble my ascetic and meditative efforts. However, by my second year of study, everything I had believed in had pretty much fallen apart.

I came to the conclusion that if there was such a thing as attaining “enlightenment”, it was to acknowledge that no amount of fine tuning your intuitive faculties would ever lead to uncovering the “Truth”. Firstly, studying the history of religions made it all too clear just how utterly man-made they all were. Secondly, studying philosophy destroyed a lot of presumptions I had about what constituted “an argument”, and hence, with it, a lot of the “arguments” that were behind my beliefs.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, studying psychology made me understand how the deeply ingrained biases that we evolved to have—the ones that colour our understanding of the world and work through all the  cognitive dissonance to try and “confirm” those opinions and beliefs that give us comfort—meant that some mechanism other than the intuitive mind had to be used to uncover how reality works.

That mechanism, it had become painfully obvious, was skepticism. Its continuously self-correcting offspring, science, was the tool I had been looking for all along.

This isn’t to say that my studies killed my interest in the spiritual. I have no doubt that meditation and the peak experiences that it can elicit are remarkably special tools that we may use to better understand ourselves and perhaps the nature of consciousness. But whatever the contents of these experiences, they could never lead to any understanding about what reality actually is or how it works: no amount of time spent meditating in a cave will make you a physicist or a neuroscientist. No amount of time spent focusing on the breath will ever uncover the fact that we evolved from other animals and live on a planet that revolves around a star that is among billions of others in this galaxy.

By the time I finished my studies and returned to Egypt, I felt like I had completely unshackled myself from my previous beliefs, and I began to revisit the books behind religions—this time in a  more analytical way.

I did not like what I saw. There was tyranny in there, and it was being orchestrated by a very unpleasant character that millions believed in–one that promised to use hell fire to torture people as punishment, while using oppression to exert power (read my other post). Yet torture and oppression were precisely the things that Egyptians were, at the time, gearing up to stop the ruling regime from administering.

This seemed to present a contradiction: why bother establishing a non-tyrannical government if you implicitly already accept tyranny from the governor of the universe? So I wrote a book that, in part, deals with this issue.

 Twitter: @hzilmi