How Driving Saved My Sanity (& Life)

One early weekend drive home from Dubai, on a cold foggy January morning. 2018.

I’m an advocate for car-less and walkable cities, but I can’t deny how the act of driving saved my sanity, and my life. Specifically driving my car.

I’m not speaking about how awesome my car is. Nor am I speaking against public transportation or driverless cars, which I am anticipating both positively.

But I’m speaking on how driving itself was a major life changing experience, and how I will ever be grateful for it.

Our cities in the Middle-East are still healing from post-colonisation and car-centric planning. We unfortunatly need a car, and we need to drive.

But as most boys, we didn’t want any car, we wanted specific cars; sport cars, fast cars, and cars that look nice. As an adult, this love grew deeper knowing the history, innovation, complexity and design. I loved the freedom that cars grants us at a very young age, the freedom to suddenly be anywhere at anytime.

I was fortunate enough to get a car at 19. Actually many cars to be honest; my uncle gave me a sort-of-broken-but-running ’01 V12 Mercedes CL600 that was leftover from his old defunct business (long story), then briefly an old nameless Nissan crossover with questionable brakes which I dented on our garage door, then my parents handed me down their ’94 Subaru Impreza wagon, which I called Subie — it was old enough to have a colour that everyone argued about if it was blue or green, and old enough to keep the steering left aligned like a computer program that doesn't support Arabic but keeps insisting on writing left-to-right (Subaru’s don’t have a big market here and parts were hard to find).

My first cars were all terrible in their own quirky ways. But I always thought they were mere fun objects/status symbols until one fateful day 11 years ago..

I remember clearly the first time driving to save my sanity in 2011. It was when my family (my parents, my younger brother and sister) and I were huddled living together in a small 1 bed-room-apartment in Amman, Jordan. It was our first year in Jordan, I don’t want to dive in and bore you with the details, but we weren’t under good times. And this cramped situation naturally caused many small quarrels between ourselves, ones that I just wished to escape briefly to take a deep breath from.

I have just gotten my license a few months ago, and living in a new city notorious for its ruthless chaotic driving (even from the words of Jeremy Clarkson), I despised and hated driving there. It wasn’t until that day where I couldn’t take it anymore, that I grabbed the keys of our Subaru wagon and drove aimlessly away to pickup my scattered thoughts.

I didn't drive far, but the drive cooled my mind enough to return and act as functional human being, and get things sorted as a young adult for the first time in my life. That small drive was a series of many other smaller ones, that not only cleared my head, but had a nice side benefit of building my own confidence of driving in Jordan. But as Subie’s age took its toll by driving me to university everyday on the harsh Jordanian roads, we sold it for scrap on its last garage visit.

With time, our family situation got gradually better. In a year, we moved to a new 3-bedroom apartment, and my siblings graduated from school. Then the year after, my mother was healthy again and received her doctorate from JU - and as everyone from my family left Jordan back to our home in Oman or university abroad, I was now left living alone.

I was fortunate enough to search, find and buy my then-5 year old used ’08 Audi TT for cheap in 2014, considering that not many people knew Audi’s and stayed far from used German cars, the price was considered a steal and way less than what my parents were willing to pay for (honestly it was priced cheaper than most students’ cars at university). I became financially independent soon after thanks to a scholarship I was awarded — which is another privilege I am grateful for.

This small Audi took over the task of driving from Subie. I am not writing this on how ‘nice it was to drive’ or ‘how fast it was’, because in the grande scheme of automotive world, it wasn’t anything to sing about. Technically speaking, this is Volkswagen Golf in a sleeker body, ala the VW Scirocco. But, for the first time in my life, I drove a new car that ‘worked as-is’, without any mechanical quirks.

And after the experience of driving terrible cars on terrible roads, driving the TT felt like a walk in the park. In few months of driving, my confidence was never any better, and slowly, those drives became more automated. When my mind is occupied in the low-level automated thinking for driving, I was free to wander into the realms of my thoughts and my mind. And that, combined with my new independence and living on my own, was another major step towards understanding what driving really meant to me.

I drove to be mindful of my thoughts

I was still living as a forigner. A lonely foreign student in a universty where most people were locals. I was into sudden realisation that I was an independent adult, and that I was alone — worse of which; I was alone with my thoughts.

As life started to show its colours on the bad days, the shadow of loneliness crept at me; my bad days, my depression, my terrible German exam results. But I had no one to speak to, I no longer had the safety net of my parents — I was faced with an apartment that was too quiet in an even quieter neighbourhood, and as winter crept up, it got too cold for me to bear. Figuratively and literally.

At first, I ran to drive my car because I found out how much easier and cheaper it was to stay warm inside a small car than an empty apartment. I ran away from myself and my apartment and I drove into the coldest of the nights. To stay warm physically and psychologically.

So I drove, not to go somewhere, but aimlessly with no destination. To escape myself. To find answers, to stop overthinking.

Those drives didn’t solve any problems per se, but it made me understand them, to think them over clearly.

I drove through all the cold snowy days when the weather was freezing and most people are huddled together with their families under the fire. As early as 6:40 am for classes and as late as 1:00 am retuning from them (design/architecture student life).

I kept driving everywhere, far and close.

North to the Syrian border, West to the Palestinian border, and once even far South to the Saudi border to renew my Carnet de Passage for a foreign plated cars. I still remember the tedious journey, and how much I lighted up after the Saudi border guard handed me a chocolate bar because he just got promoted.

For all the good times I didn’t have anyone to speak to, through all the bad and lonely times, I drove as I was slowly transitioning as a young adult in life.

The car became my safe haven, a small familiarity to strive for after a long day of being a foreigner for too long.

I drove to be mindful of the world

There is nothing more beautiful than driving slowly on country roads or late empty city streets, sans music, with the windows down. You enter another zen of driving as you and your machine become one with the environment — the sights, the sounds, and even the smell of the late night air (well I would never forget the crispy delicious smell of shawarma on some streets of Amman).

The hum of the engine mixes with the sound of the streets, of the country roads, dissolving as the roar of the wind picks up. The imperfections of the road vibrate through your small car, the faint sound of air leaking from the windows sides, the whistle of the small turbo engine; you start to wander more into the realms of the environment. Driving, to enjoy the journey itself, not the destination.

I picked this habit even when I found myself across the world in Germany or New Zealand years later, as I drove 5 hours into the wilderness with barely any other car passing by, to stay at an old mans AirBnb farm in the middle of nowhere. I won’t lie how nerve-wrecking the thought of the experience itself was (taking the longest flight of the world, then driving on the wrong side of the world for 5 hours in a new continent, alone). But the zen of driving itself was the goal and what cleared my mind.

The value of time alone with the environment is greatly underapprecaited, I’m not saying this as an introvert only, but as how the internet and social media has slowly consumed hours of our time in mindless scrolling, in mindless comparisons, mindless echo chambers of our beliefs. Consuming the our scientifically-proven valuable time of boredom. It’s no wonder our best ideas are shower thoughts.

Yes, I still love the environment. I didn’t stroke my ego by driving a large V8 pickup truck to play into my urban cowboy fantasy or renting any V6/V8 sports cars (no hate if that’s your thing, I couldn't afford them anyway). But instead I made sure I always got the cleanest and cheapest option: small cars with small engines and low emission. I made sure I was driving for drivings sake —not being worried about how the car looks, its top speed, the petrol prices nor the destination. The car and driving was my meditation.

I drove to be mindful of my memories

And as my last days in Jordan pulled up 5 years later, as my life in Jordan was established and as perfect as it could ever get. The small TT was there for me on my graduation day.

I remember vividly as we all celebrated defending our thesis, how we partied, danced dabke (granted I shy-ing far away, I love and fear the extroverted Mediterranean culture). I remember how we said our goodbyes; how everyone broke into groups. And the day I feared has finally arrived, I once again, lost my friends and stood alone, having my car as the only familiarity.

It’s probably the first time I admit it out in open..

I cried. I cried as I sat in my car.

I sobbed as I drove home. In my meditation chamber.

I was overwhelmed with emotions. Of knowing that I am leaving everyone behind.

My classmates were nearly my only friends then, I was fortunate enough to love all of them, and I knew then that this was the day we will forever get separated, and whatever everyday life I had with them ended. And whatever everyday life I had in the beautiful country of Jordan ended. And what broke me apart was the notion that this day spelled the last day of memories with my friends. There won’t be any future memories anymore, not with most of those people.

I am happy to be this vulnerable to admit that I cried while writing this (I didn’t think it was worth crying?), but I learned of a very unfortunate and uncomfortable truth:

As an adult, we’ve already spent the most amount of time we will spend with our close friends.

When you no longer spend 8 hours of school with them, and when you will only see your friends once every few years, this adds up to seeing them at the best cases only 20–30 times in your life again. That means for the month preluding the graduation, I have already seen most of my friends in that month more than I will ever see them again in life.

And this sucks.

This unfortunate truth really sucks. And this is why I will always drop anything to see any of my friends if we end in the same country.

I drove for a long time after the graduation, passing through every campus and memory in the city (my university location moved 4 times in 5 years!).

I was, once again, left with nothing physical but my car, and my memories.

And on that day, my TT represented something bigger than itself; it was a metaphor of my extended self. Of my friends. Of my love for them. Of our shared drives, our stories, our dreams, and our vents. Of everywhere I’ve been in with it, of Jordan and later, of my life in Dubai. Of family members that I lost and shared a ride with, of my pets, of my track days in Dubai autodome, of my business meetings, of my first day and last day at work in new countries. The car was a metaphor of my life.

Murkami put it into words perfectly:

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s what part of it means to be alive. But inside our heads — at least that’s where I imagine it — there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let fresh air in, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live for ever in your own private library.”

— Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

The car, as a metaphor, carries another burden that once again keeps off my mind: it’s my library of memories, a time machine. I can peacefully live in the present knowing that if I ever needed to return to the past, it’s found within the confines of this small car whenever I craved the past. Even on the years where I was a nomad for years far from my car and home, I returned with keychains that were added to the car keys to remind me of my previous lives.

Now in 2022, as the TT has begun to shows its age; the paint faded, the bumpers and wheels scuffed, the seats have gaping holes, the skid plate missing, and my interior trim pieces are being replaced with 3D printed parts.

The car proved to be too reliable to replace (awarded Most Relaible Sports Car in 2020), and too cheap in the market anyways to be replaced with anything fruitful. I am too old now to appreciate new cars anymore, too careful of the environment, too accepting of the idea that cars shouldn't be the answer for someone who lives in the city.

I don’t have time or need anymore to take those aimless drives as much — my life is fine now, not perfect, but fine. I have returned to my home country, I live next to family again, my commute is a calm 20 minute drive. I have grown, I’m learning to speak about my mental health, to love and let go of memories, to let life be and trust Allah’s plans.

And I will always be grateful for my car. I will still drive it to be reminded of my thoughts. I will still drive it to be reminded of my world. I will still drive it to be reminded of my memories.

And most of all, I will still drive to be reminded that everything in life is temporary; Happiness. Sadness. People. Cars. Memories.. and Life.

Snowy day in Amman, Jordan. 2015.
Track day in Dubai Autodrome, UAE. 2017.

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