Interview with Farida El Sharkawy

INTERVIEWS

Conducted by Farida Amr. Edited by Nicole Guan and Jordanne Stewart.

Cover image design by Thanh Le.

Featured in the image: Farida El Sharkawy

The Youngest Egyptian to Reach Mount Everest BC

Farida Amr, the co-director of writing of Momentum Magazine, conducted an interview with Farida El Sharkawy, the youngest Egyptian, as well as the first Eyptian teenager, to reach Mount Everest Base Camp. A two-time TEDx speaker, World Youth Forum attendee, and an active member of the organisation “Surviving Hijab,” Farida El Sharkawy continues to amaze us with her hard work, dedication, passion, and perspective. 

Note: To avoid confusion, Farida Amr’s name will be replaced with “Momentum” for this interview.

Momentum: Hi Farida! How are you doing? 

Farida El Sharkawy: I’m good, alhamdulillah. I’ve been coping with the long quarantine for a couple of months now and I think it’ll last until the end of the year. I’m trying to tell myself that I need to cope with it instead of waiting for something to happen. 

Momentum: Here’s to hoping we get a vaccine soon! Well, you’ve had some insane achievements in the past few years: TEDx talks, participating in World Youth Forum, and of course reaching Everest Base Camp! How was your Everest experience? 

Farida: It was pretty intense and going through such an intense and life-changing experience cost me a lot. It took a lot from my time and came in the way of so many things. However, I decided to let go of these things because I was sponsored by “Surviving Hijab”—the Facebook group. I reminded myself: “You know what, doing something for this cause is worthwhile.” I did not climb the highest mountain in the world for personal achievement. I did it to share the message of tolerance, inclusivity, and equality for Hijabi women across all communities in the world. So that’s mainly why I was willing to sacrifice so much, including my academics, just to go for it. 

Momentum: That sounds intense. What do you think was the biggest challenge you faced? Was it physical or mental?

Farida: Definitely mental. You know, before I left Cairo to attempt this, my father said, “You are going to hit your rock bottom and be at the lowest physical, mental, and emotional point you will ever be  in your entire life.” And he was definitely right. It was way more challenging mentally because you’ve got to fight. In reality, it’s all in your mind. You come across many challenges during the expedition and the only thing that will keep you going is your mental status, which will also be hitting its rock bottom. So it was very challenging to balance it all as well as my emotional state. It was like all these aspects were in a wrestling pit—fighting each other for dominance. And the question was: “Who wins at the end of my day?” Because each day was a story for me. After 14 days on the mountain, every day was an entire story that I can keep telling for the rest of my life. 

Momentum: 14 days is a lot! Do you have a favorite story or a favorite event that happened on the mountain?

Farida: There were no favorite events, I promise you,because they were all kind of desperate. However, one very important part of the climb that I want to highlight, which had a huge positive impact on me, is the team. 

There were 14 women of 11 different nationalities and coming from completely different communities. We were of different religious backgrounds, but we came for the same cause—equality. The support of this connection that we shared on the mountain when each of us was struggling in our own way was very special to me. I was supported by our mentor and leader of the trek, Manal Rostom, as well as the  other climbers. We had only met each other when we started, but our relationship grew on the mountain and we came to know each other through the trek. The way they supported me mentally, emotionally, and physically keeping me up was beyond life changing. 

Momentum: That sounds amazing. I’m going to be hopping off the theme of our first issue “Eureka” as it seems particularly relevant to your story. Throughout your journey, you’ve probably had several eureka moments. Is there one you’d like to share with us? 

Farida: Yes, I think I had a couple eureka moments that changed my life, perspective, and maturity level during the climb. Let me first tell you about the risk of climbing the mountain and reaching the base camp. If you google the risk of an expedition like this, an illness called altitude sickness will come up along with various symptoms. If these symptoms reach a certain level, a climber with altitude sickness would  have to descend immediately or else have their physical health be negatively affected. In rare cases, if they keep climbing after being hit with the sickness, the person will die. This is the most dangerous part of attempting this expedition. 

Our team  went for 14 days, and I was hit by altitude sickness on the third day. So I had 11 days to go but I was already sick. One major symptom was the loss of appetite, so I couldn’t taste my food. Do you know how bad it feels mentally and emotionally when you’re extremely hungry and desperately want to taste your food, but can’t? You really don’t want to feel like this. 

It was very  overwhelming. And there were other symptoms that came with altitude sickness including  headaches, nausea, and extreme pain in the  stomach. As one climbs further away from sea level, oxygen levels decrease rapidly. And  if there isn’t enough oxygen in the blood, organs cannot function properly under the pressure of altitude sickness. 

I remember a poster on the door of the tea lodges where we slept. It said, “Altitude sickness may kill you.” I remember I saw the poster and thought, “Why would you scare me like that?”. But not three hours later, I was actually hit by altitude sickness. That night, everyone gave me medication that might have helped, and they let me rest and acclimatize. I was lucky that I was hit on the rest day, but I remember being so sick that they decided that the next morning, if I was not feeling better, I was going to descend.

That was my Eureka moment. I told myself, “I came all this way, skipped my final exams as a senior, and missed many school days to go to the gym and train. I sacrificed so many things and now I might need to just quit.” So when everyone went to sleep, my mind kept telling my body, “you need to be okay, because you can’t go back after this.” 

To make it to where I was, I had to go through the world’s most dangerous airport—Lukla airport. Out of ten flights that leave that airport, six of them fall. That was the plane that I had to take from Kathmandu to the Himalaya mountains. I was still recovering from the fact that even if I did not die coming from the city to the mountains, and even if I finished the trek successfully, I still might die going back home. In my last TEDx talk I mentioned that I actually took a selfie in front of the plane before we took off. I sent it to my mom, and texted “This might be the last picture of me. I love you”. That was pretty insane and brutal of me. I was already very emotional about what I went through to get to the mountains, and now I may have had to descend. I was in total denial. My mind was telling me, “You’re not descending,” while my body was giving up, and I realized that I needed to do something. I was begging my body to be okay, literally speaking to my physical self saying, “You need to get through this. You fought for it, so you need to get better, okay?”. 

Before I slept, I read some Quran, and as silly as it sounds, I took some Antinal (only Egyptians can relate, they’re very familiar with the medication) because I had extreme pain in my stomach. This was a whole new level of pain, even worse than my monthly cycle. My oxygen level was 60%, which is very low. The next day, it had jumped up to 80%. I have no clue how that happened. I just prayed and told myself I needed to get through this, and the next day I woke up smiling. The pain was now bearable, and I was  ready to have breakfast and continue my day. Even our mentors were very surprised, and said,  “Yesterday you were dying.  What happened?”. Afterwards, I realized my power, what I’m capable of. I realized you can convince yourself of anything; if you are determined enough to do something, you’re going to do it. Even when I was physically giving up, even when there was a huge risk continuing, I wanted badly to do this. This was a life-changing experience; it taught me things about myself that I didn’t even know. I realized how much you’re capable of creating change, real change, even if it seems out of your hands. This wasn’t the only time I was ill during the expedition. I still had altitude sickness, but I was at least capable of continuing the day. By day three, I had learned that it’s not about finishing all 14 days., rather it’s about finishing the day you’re in. If you manage to complete your day without getting into any trouble or getting sick, you’ve succeeded. It’s not just about achieving the Base Camp. That was the most intense moment of realization I’ve ever had. 

Momentum: Wow, you actually managed to convince your own organs? I genuinely didn’t think that could happen, but it just speaks to the power of the mind. When you decided to attempt the climb, what made you choose this, despite knowing the risks? 

Farida:The cause, it’s all about the cause. This is why I risked it, why I sacrificed so much. It wasn’t about my personal achievement but rather I thought “You know what? My choice to cover up doesn’t mean I’m limited. If I can climb to Mount Everest Base Camp while wearing my Hijab, I can do anything with it on.” We were 14 women from different nationalities, Muslims and non-Muslims. Even within the Muslims, some wore hijabs and others didn’t. So we were all-inclusive, from different communities, colors, races, backgrounds, and climates. Extremes coming together in one place for one cause. This is the main reason why I did it. I’m still involved with Surviving Hijab; I’m the Facebook Moderator and have been part of the team since 2017. 

Momentum: It’s amazing that you have something you’re so passionate about, and it’s such a great cause as well. A lot of people would find your story inspiring. If you could give them one quote they can live by, what would it be?

Farida: I think it’s something I personally believe in: “Strive for what you’re passionate about. No matter how long it takes, or how hard it looks. As long as you’re passionate about something , you’re going to succeed in doingit , even if it’s small. It doesn’t have to be as big as a mountain; it can be very little, but very huge for you personally.”

Momentum: I like to make a habit of asking a totally random question during interviews, so if you had a brand, what would the tagline be?

Farida: I don’t know why but Nike’s “Just Do It” is coming to my brain. Something similar: “Go For It!” with an exclamation mark.

Momentum: That seems pretty accurate to your story and achievements! How does it feel now, over a year later?

Farida: I am thankful I took the decision to go for it.  It changed me a lot. One year feels like three, because of the intensity of what I’ve learned. 

Momentum: You’ve done so much already! What’s your next big dream?

Farida: Since I moved to Malaysia for university, I’ve been trying to build my new life and adapt to a new country. I survived the first few months of moving to a new place alone, which is an achievement. I took a couple of online courses that just ended a couple of days ago: “Mental Health Effects on COVID-19” from Harvard Medical School, and “Understanding Live-streams Workflows” from Amazon Web Services, since I study Mass Communications. I’ve also always been interested in psychology. I have a diploma in psychology actually. Because I’ve been intensely impacted mentally by COVID-19, I took the Harvard course. But I don’t want to be stressed that there has to be something that I need to do to succeed. I don’t want to feel pressured by the community or society into feeling like I need to do something big. I’m just going to strive for whatever comes along the way. I’m looking forward to learning, education has become my priority now, although previously it was not. I’m looking forward to networking and attending conferences in this new country, so I can learn, and then do something different, rather than what I’ve been doing for the past two years.  I’ve been trying for almost three years to speak at a TEDx event, and I got rejected eight times. 

Momentum: But now you’ve been a TEDx speaker twice! 

Farida: It’s not always the easy journey. That’s the sad thing about social media. People see the results, but they never really see what happened beforehand. I’m trying to use my platform to show people it’s never the easy path, or at least not for me. I don’t even know how I survived getting rejected eight times, but I believed in the idea of speaking out about something. I did  both my TEDx talks before I was 18. The first one was about bullying in December 2018, and my second was about my Everest journey, in August 2019. 

Momentum: I remember! I attended that one. 

Farida: It took me such a long time to achieve this. I’m very passionate about public speaking.  I had something that I wanted to say, and I delivered it. Now I’m trying to network, discover something new, find out more about mass communications and public speaking. This is what I’m passionate about doing. In the meanwhile, I’m also attempting something else. This is an “exclusive” bit of news: I’m in the process of applying for a record in Guinness World Records as the first Egyptian teenager to climb Mount Everest. Now I’m just hoping it’ll work. It’s really difficult, but I’m giving it a try. 

Momentum: I’ll search for your name in Guinness 2021, I know I’ll find it inshallah! It’s been an honor speaking to you, and hopefully in a year we’ll be interviewing you again as a world record holder! Thank you so much for doing this. 

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