Fast Confession – survival course instructor Amar Ibrahim: Women are incredibly tough. A group without a woman has no punch.
Half Czech, half Persian. Amar Ibrahim was born, raised and lives in the Czech Republic, where he has long been trying to teach others how to survive in nature. His motto is „KNOW THYSELF.“ Eight years ago, he founded the Outdoor Survival Agency, where he teaches his clients how to build a fire, forage for food and sleep in the dry. According to Amar, few people today remember sleeping in the open. He tries to remind people how interesting nature is and how you can enjoy spending quality time there.
How did you come to organise such courses?
I used to organize other adventure activities as well, my colleagues and I had some experience from the army, scouting and travelling abroad. I had a group of friends staying with me, and they said that since we are always in the outdoors, that they wanted us to give them a civilian survival course. They said there was nothing like that in Europe, only army training for journalists in Vyškov, and they want us to create a course for them. So we did it, and then it took off.
How many years ago was that?
Fifteen years ago.
Until then, what were you doing?
I was a security consultant for a company.
You said you were bullied during your military service.
How is that possible?
In the Czechoslovak People's Democratic Army, there was always two years of bullying.
But in those two years, being bullied turned into getting to bully others.
I didn't bully as an old-timer, I stuck to my motto: Don't do to others what you don't like. In the end, I was getting beat up by the officers because I got labelled as indocile and an “imperialist.” When I was told in a training exercise that an American battalion was attacking us and we were going to drive them off, I told them we'd get our asses kicked. I got locked up right away. I was the black sheep of the Warsaw Pact.
Where did you learn everything that you're imparting on the course?
You learn all your life. We're still learning. We get guys who were in the military, people who ride their bikes across Alaska. We have to keep pushing ourselves. What we teach in the courses is nothing special. But going back to life without electricity, going back to the life of our grandparents, our soldiers in the Austrian-Hungarian army who went through the Italian front, Russian legionnaires who lived like this normally, in minus forty degrees. My great-grandfather was in captivity somewhere in Siberia, I have a photo of him doing his laundry there, where the photo says: -40 °C. Everyone asks me how to test if they can survive. I tell them to turn off their electricity, gas and water, block their credit card for a while so they can't go shopping and live off what they have at home, and lock their car keys in the safe.
What should I do then?
The point is that we are so dependent on electricity that we can't even smoke without it. We also do corporate team-building events, and we had to buy another switchboard to charge people's e-cigarettes. You should have a supply of food at home. When you go into the woods, you should be prepared to stay there for at least two days. Have water, flint, a knife... Have at least a month's worth of supplies at home. If the power goes out in the winter, you'll run out of water if you have a well with an electric pump, and you won't get heat without a fireplace or a firewood stove. People don't think about that. We live in a fragile bubble, and when it bursts, people won't know what to do.
Do you think something like that can happen?
I hope not, but that's what I said about the epidemic too. Three years ago, I said in my lectures what could happen. First of all, a power outage, that's what happened in Slovenia, a quarter of the country went out. It was a big problem for several months. Then I talked about an economic crisis, that one day you won’t be able to withdraw money, to pay, which happened in Argentina in 2000 and then in Greece. And then I said that some kind of epidemic, like the Spanish flu, could come here. Scientists have predicted all this, but nobody is preparing for anything.
Do you think when this is gone, anyone will be preparing for a blackout or an economic collapse?
Any problem can cause another problem. Everybody get ready, I don't want to scare you, but there will be economic problems. There already are. It won't come right away, but already after a year, companies say they have no material to manufacture from, they have no orders. There will be an impact. Just look, all it takes is a ship to be stuck in the Suez Canal for a week and suddenly the economy stops. We're terribly fragile.
But how are you going to prepare for it? For an economic crisis following the Covid?
Not that I'm preparing for it, but I've had my business closed for six months. I had to live off what I had saved. I've tried it. You should have some reserves. I'd ban loan ads. Some economically illiterate people take one loan after another. A mortgage here, a car there. They lose their job and suddenly have no money to pay them back. They should prepare themselves for this kind of thing. The Jews used to say: You should have assets in property, cash and gold.
What have you experienced firsthand? Regarding survival?
Falling somewhere, getting stuck, something like that happened to me and I got out of it because I had everything with me and I knew how to get out of it. The biggest problem for me was when my twins were born eleven years ago and my wife, when they were just three months old, was taken to the hospital to have her discs operated on. I had two babies and a four-year-old girl to care for. That was the real "survival", that was a proper, full-blown survival course. Every time I feel my worst, I think what people must have experienced in the concentration camps, in the gulags. It's nothing compared to this. I'm warm, I have something to eat, something to drink. So I made a schedule of stuff and a timetable of when to eat or change diapers, and I went with it.
And in the countryside?
I've never hit rock bottom in the outdoors. Those who are prepared are not surprised. As I say in my interviews - one war veteran, when asked what it was like in the war, told me that cemeteries are full of heroes. You have to be prepared, you have to be able to cope. It can all be summed up in just one precept - every adventure is just poor planning.
What do you actually do in your courses?
In the beginning, we get acquainted, I divide people into smaller groups, they hand me their phones and cigarettes and we go into the forest. There we teach them how to make a fire, what you can eat, how to get drinking water, and most importantly we teach them how to use a paper map and a compass. Occasionally there is someone who tries to zoom in with their fingers. We teach them how to build a shelter. The next day we let them starve a little bit, that's when the weak links show. When a man is hungry, he turns into someone else. They'll eat even that worm they say they'd never eat. (laughs)
But it's not about wanting to frustrate anybody, not at all. People are supposed to leave the course having learned something, found their limits, and ultimately having spent a nice weekend in the woods without a phone.
You must have had a lot of people pass through your hands in those 15 years. How do they cope when they're used to today's comforts of life and then they hit the rock bottom during your course? What did you have to deal with there?
Basically the biggest issue there is the food. Fifteen years ago, if I took someone's cigarettes away, it was a problem. Now people have generally stopped smoking and no one or maybe one or two in the group smoke. Now it's a problem when you take away their cell phone. The addiction to it is the worst. Then also the sugar addiction. When a person drinks three litres of sugary drink a day, which really happens, then they’re surprised by becoming a mess without their sugar there. Some of them also realize they’re actually alcoholic. I've been offered as much as two grand to bring them beer. It's all about comfort. Keeping them hungry for a while is enough.
Various tribes in Africa or Asia nowadays still hunt and gather all day to eat in the evening. Not here. When we get hungry, we just pop out of the house and we can buy food on every corner. We open the tap and water flows, we don't have to walk 15 kilometres a day to collect some yellowish water. We flush drinking water down our toilets. It‘s an incredible luxury that we live in here. No one realizes it. You wake up in the morning, you're warm, you have light, the coffee machine makes your coffee. It's nice to get used to, but we can lose it in a second. When the epidemic came, I said somewhere that we'd lose 30 percent of the life we're used to. They laughed at me there, but we did lose it. Our freedom, mostly. It's not gonna be like it used to be. That's what everybody should realize.
Are you talking about travel?
In general. We'll be watched more, our movements and actions. There's talk of code IDs, that's easy to track too. We'll have to report everything, even travel. Freedom of speech has been tightened lately, too.
Does it bother you personally?
I'm halfway through my life. It bothers me because I have children. What will they live in? The safe world has always been a bubble. It's not so noticeable here, but in Paris or Germany, there are neighbourhoods you can't even go to. They're mostly countries that have exhausted their colonies. We didn't have them, we were a colony of Austria.
What kind of feedback do you get from the course participants? Do the three days of the course have such an impact on them that they want to change something in their lives?
One man told me that when he gets home he's going to tell his wife to throw out the fridge, because everything we eat grows the garden. Some have changed their lives by realising what a fragile world they live in. They said they’d at least learn how to cook. I happened to give a woman in her forties flour to make dough, and it turned out she had never done it before. Instead of dough, she made some freaky watery mush. She'd never done it in her life, because as a manager she didn't have the time. As I say, we live in some kind of hothouse and people should realize that it doesn't take much.
What are the differences between men and women on the course?
We've never had a woman give up on us. Women are so tough. If there's not a woman in the group, it has no punch. The guys are obviously showing off for them. I've also seen two people meet there and end up getting married. She actually picked him out, she didn't want any wuss. Women are always tough, they go over the edge.
How do you explain that? I mean, women can't haul a log to build a shelter.
My wife always tells me that if men gave birth, we'd die out. That's the point. There have been cases of women picking up a log that has fallen on their baby, that they would never have picked up otherwise. They're really tough, they go over the edge, and they never stop. A man, as they say, can be put out by a slight cold. Of course, that doesn't mean all men are wimps. I guess it's in their genes. There are two or three women in every group. There are fewer of them than men, but there's never been any problem with them.
What about the kids?
When we do survival courses for families with children, the children are absolutely happy. We teach them the very basics, cooking soup in a mess kit is an adventure for them. One mother asked us how did we make her son eat potatoes. I simply said: “I didn't give him anything else, he was hungry”. The kids cope just fine, it's actually the dads who complain that they lack the comfort they are used to. The kids are happy, they enjoy it. We don't yell at them, we get them to do it through play. We show them how to build a fire, they make pancakes, roast a trout. Normally they live in a completely different world, this is an adventure for them.
Kids don't go out as much these days, they're on their phones or computers. How do you see it in the future? I don't think there are that many sane parents who will send them to your course or anywhere in the countryside.
I see it pessimistically. I gave away about five free vouchers for a survival course as prizes in a competition in a magazine. The kids won it, they were delighted, but when they said it at home, the parents said they weren't going anywhere. The kids called me afterwards to ask what to do about it. I'm sorry. This is the age of malls. Electric scooter, headphones in your ears, phone in your hand and a bottle of energy drink in the other. That's so sad. Twenty, fifteen years ago, people were at least ten percent able to fend for themselves. Today, about one percent can do it, and that’s me being optimistic.
The worst thing is that even those who might be expected to do well don't. Most of the time people are just playing pretend. Taking a picture with a flint and a knife doesn't mean they know how to use it when all they do is keep it in their closet at home. But people are starting to realise that, even the kids or their parents, so they come to our course. I made it so that only the parent pays and the kid gets it for free. I know myself that when you go to the zoo with kids, for example, and you have three kids, it's financially challenging. I set it up so that the kids didn't have to pay for it and we got more of them there. One woman called me and said her child didn't want to go to the seaside but to our survival course. Some of them are coming back, so we're coming up with new things to make it a little more interesting for them.
What about your kids?
I have three daughters. One's an adult now, I have a grandson. When I load them up – I have a jeep from World War II – and we go somewhere, they sleep outside. But when the kid finds out I'm going to a family survival course, he's already packed up, going about his business, and I don't even catch a glimpse of him there. He can build a fire, and I hope he can fend for himself.
Like I said, always keep your wits about you, keep it together. When you’re stuck with something, always calm down, take a deep breath. Keep a cool head and think. Those are the guiding principles for survival anywhere.