Head Above Water

Some reviews about my upcoming memoir, Head Above Water: Reflections on Illness are included here. I am so EXCITED and thrilled that so many people I love, admire, and look up to, decided to read my memoir. It is out May 30th, 2022. Available here:

Head Above Water

“Tenth century Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi said: على قدر أهل العزم تأتي العزائم, which roughly translated into “One’s strength shall be according to the measure of one’s desire.” The poet uses the phrase “Ahl al-Azm” for those who are empowered with persistence, resolve and determination. If we are lucky we would be amongst those who enjoy such traits and hopefully inspire others along the way by sharing our stories. Dr. Shahd Alshammari’s Head Above Water is one such account, beautifully written in an approachable tone. The book offers numerous anecdotes filled with trials and tribulations, historical narratives and childhood dreams, and above all human moments that remind us that wherever we lie on the spectrum of being fully able bodied human beings or significantly disabled we all share similar fears and more importantly hopes. For me, Dr. Alshammari embodies the strengths of Mutannabi’s Ahl al-Azm.”

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

Writer and lecturer, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation

“Shahd Alshammari’s Head above Water: Reflections on Illness is a welcome addition to the growing body of illness narratives. She conveys eloquently and candidly the randomness of her multiple sclerosis, communicating what it’s like to live in her body—Arab, female, disabled—and how her illness has shaped her education and her life as an academic. Her prose is at once lively and deadly serious, vividly somatic and deeply thoughtful, highly engaging. Her book succeeds at a difficult endeavor: narrating chronic illness without imposing a false narrative arc on that experience.”

G.T. Couser

Author of Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing

“The core of this book lies in its intimate questioning of loneliness and disability. The soul is held captive by the body, but the body is also the finding place, the freeing place. Shahd Alshammari’s sensuous prose explores the manipulation of memory, the question of time, and gender politics. We are invited to reconsider the intricacies of love, the body, motherhood, the pervasive power of language, the power of women’s education, and the synergy between the Professor and the student. A brave book!”

Jokha AlHarthi

Author of Celestial Bodies, winner of Man Booker International Prize 2019. 

“Shahd Alshammari’s memoir of life with MS (Head Above Water: Reflections on Illness) is one of the first distinctly 21st century illness narratives. She situates chronic illness at the intersection of issues that include gender, exile, medical experimentation, and the politics of the Middle East. Her memoir becomes truly a dialogue, as her story fills with the voices of other women and men she has known, and how illness disrupted their lives. Reading her, I thought continually of Yeats’s famous line, “a terrible beauty is born.” In this book, illness is that terrible beauty, always affecting but never determining the author’s life.”

Arthur W. Frank, Ph.D.

Author of At the Will of the Body and The Wounded Storyteller

“An important piece of life writing – Shahd Alshammari’s Head Above Water breaks new ground in representing the lives of disabled Arab women. Exploring connections between the body, language, and culture, Alshammari’s new memoir is a sensitive and moving invitation to reconsider the stories that we are made of.”

Dr. Roxanne Douglas, University of Warwick

“Shahd AlShammari closes her eyes, gets closer to herself, and produces a breakthrough narrative on dealing with a chronic illness. Conversational in tone, yet candid and probing in nature, Head above Water fills a gap in disability narratives by Arab Women. At once, a sad story, on loss, death and the inability to cry; but also a story full of hope, love and appreciation for life and for friendship. Shahd defies death. The result is a sanguine memoir, more, on ability rather than disability, on wellness rather than illness.”

Dr. Nawar Al-Hassan Golley

Author of Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies: Shahrazad Tells Her Story

Game On (even when it’s off)

With the way my brain works, the neurons seem to disconnect randomly — the neuronal pathways are stifled and unable to process information easily. I have been living with Multiple Sclerosis since the age of eighteen. I can barely remember any other life. There is always a disconnect, even when I try hard to tell my brain to follow my commands — or when my brain is unable to command my body to do what it wants. For as far as I can remember, I wasn’t able to move easily. I wasn’t able to play any sports. I wasn’t able to find a reason to move, other than to go to campus, teach a class, and return home only to lay in bed and gather my energy for the next working day.

Until of course the pandemic hit and life changed. Classes were no longer classes. They were gone. They remained online, which meant I was confined to my chair and desk, with minimal to no human interaction. As I started feeling more depressed and saddened by the loss of my physical classroom, my MS began to get worse, and I was starting to lose track of who I am. All I have ever felt and known was me as a professor. That’s all there was to me. But then I found a new game altogether.

The new game was an experiment that Fadwa introduced me to. Fadwa, ever so alive and passionate, insisted that there had to be something I could fall in love with. There had to be a game I could play, even if I struggled. So she suggested Squash, a game she had been playing for years, and insisted that she could train me. I explained that unlike most abled-bodied people, I would struggle to pick up the rules of the game and to actually generate enough power to hit a ball. And still, she insisted that we had to try.

So I bought my shiny squash shoes (because who doesn’t love fashionable orange shoes) and a racket. We hit the court, and slowly, I began learning how to move. I missed so many times, I grew frustrated, and I even cried out of embarassment and feeling like a failure. I had a proper coach laugh at my inability to memorize movement and coordination, and he actually asked me if I had a brain problem, jokingly. The irony was that I did — I do. I do have a brain problem and coordination is difficult. But I couldn’t say all of this to some stranger who was mocking my slow reflexes.

I told Fadwa that I never wanted to play again because I was failing to be ‘normal’. I told her this even though I am a disability studies scholar and I don’t believe in ‘normal’ and fight against the usage of such ableist terminology. Feeling vulnerable and weak left me unable to think like a scholar. I just felt like a kid who was left waiting for her turn on the bench, never being chosen to play, waiting earnestly for her moment to come.

To summarize the very long and frustrating process of learning how to play squash, I had to unlearn the basic biases we have towards playing any sports. I wasn’t in it to win. I wasn’t in it to prove that I was fast enough or good enough. I had to learn that simply being able to play was enough. I began enjoying the failed moments too because we laughed about it, not mockingly, but at the way my body wanted to break all the rules. I had to speak to my body to stay put, to stay in place, to not rotate as I swung the racket. I had to stay rooted so I could generate enough power.

And that’s when I realized how important it is it to stay put. To stay rooted. To keep your eyes on the ball. I had to remind myself that I was here, within my body, that I wasn’t all up in the air, that I wasn’t always inside my head, connected only to the chaos of my neuronal firings. I had a body too, one I had neglected and forgotten because I had broken up with it many years ago. It had disappointed me, so I had just walked away from it. I needed to learn to stay rooted and connected to my self through connecting with my body again. My hand was still a part of me. My torso was still part of me. And my eyes, as much as I tried to squint them to see the world didn’t have to be perfect; they just had to be. It was an interesting experience for me to be able to see myself as not just disabled, or just an academic, or a disabled academic. It was interesting for me to see myself as in love with squash. I have always been only in love with words and books. Finding a new love has helped me find hope. I can’t say I’m a pro– but I can’t say I want that either.

I was lucky enough to recieve support from famous squash players who wished me a happy birthday. Fadwa reached out to different players and they actually responded. She asked them to support my journey through squash. One of them was a squash player who has MS, Andrea Fjellgaard. She is changing the world just by playing. She believes that MS is all about enjoying the moment, the life that you have today, and one way is to keep playing. This is her story:

Andrea Fjellgaard: Battling MS to becoming a leading squash pro

I am just happy that there’s still some game in me — that the game is still on. I am grateful to Fadwa, to squash, to Andrea Fjellgaard, Amanda Sobhy, Nouran Gohar, Tarek Momen, and others who were kind enough to drop me a beautiful message.