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.

On Arab fiction and trauma

I had fun moderating a talk with Kuwaiti author Layla Alammar. Moderating is never an easy task for me. It requires focus, attention, and a balance between giving the author a chance to talk as much as they want, and making sure the questions are not plain boring. Another problem I face is that my voice fades easily — vocal chord issues with MS and chronic fatigue. I make sure I get as much rest as I can, and yet, it is still so hard. Most of these talks are scheduled at night, when I’m fully out of it. But with Covid, most of these talks are now online — so accessible to me and others. I feel that it’s just easier, being able to sit in a chair and not have to sit up straight and then get up and walk around and pretend to be fully abled-bodied. But that’s a whole other post on its own.

Here’s the link to the talk, hosted by Columbia Global Centers (Amman). What a lovely group of people – they were accommodating and so helpful. Technology tends to fail us, but they did such a good job — and a group of inspiring and young women, too! Behind the scenes, lots of work was done to make sure this ends up as wonderful as it was.

COVID Poetry by my students

With COVID and teaching online I’ve managed to come up with different ways to engage my students with the material we are studying. For instance, in my Modern Poetry Class, we are looking at poetry of witness (see Carolyne Forche’s Poetry of Witness and Against Forgetting).

We discuss how poetry is one way to document the traumas happening around us, to us, to our loved ones, and this sense of catastrophic urgency that has taken over our lives. We miss human interaction and campus but we have managed to connect to each other differently through online learning. I asked my students to try documenting their experience with COVID and the traumas that they want to bear witness to — and here are some of their poems, shared with permission. They are all literature majors and wonderful people and I am honored to share their work:

I remember February’s friends,

January’s birthday celebration,

December’s Christmas in London with my cousin,

November’s rainy car rides featuring the soothing sounds of Nothing But Thieves,

October’s ragdoll and witch costumes for Halloween,

I remember being happy,

I remember feeling seen,

I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday,

Or the day before that,

Or the one before that,

I don’t remember if a smile even crossed my face,

I don’t remember the last time I looked at my calendar,

I don’t remember the last time I left my bed for a purpose,

I don’t remember the meaning of a good night sleep,

I don’t remember when I stopped counting the deaths,

Or when they stopped scaring me,

I remember when it began though,

I remember my last day of uni,

February 23rd,

One week turned into two,

Two weeks turned into a month,

A month turned into nine,

And I am slowly but surely losing my mind,

What is it like to function?

What is it like to be human when you’ve become so numb?

Desensitized from a pandemic that’s taking over your life,

When nothing brings you sadness or joy anymore,

What have you become?

A body with no soul,

Once alive,

Now done.

-Nina Q.

— Nina Q.

21st Century child—
Open the windows,
Lock all doors,
Face the blue four walls
You ever so adored.  

21st Century child-
Sick with ague,
Stay here, I’ll take care of you—
Once I’ve dealt with
All sixty million of you.

Mother-to-be, hunched over on your hospital bed-
Tears, tears flowing down her cheeks,
The virus was too strong,
That life you once carried,
Nothing but death in your womb.

21st Century child—
Open your window, Stay indoors.
The howling wind at night comforts you,
Plastic cans roll down the street,
The street you once loved and adored.

21st Century child—
The death-toll rises.
I know that someday you’ll forget this ever happened,
Carry on with your life.
Carry on against forgetting.

—Sal S.

“You never know what you have until its gone”

Is a saying we wish to never hear

I want to see the smiles on peoples faces

But now we all look like robots from different places

I want to breathe in fresh air

Without becoming a scare

The people closest to me have become strangers

It seems like we all view each other as dangers

My social skills have deteriorated

And so has my mind (Anonymous)

wallowing in isolation, anxiety, melancholy

the comfort in the confinement of those four walls

sprinkling the seeds of solitude in my mind

“it’s too dangerous to go out still.”

is that a lie i keep telling myself? to further isolate myself? till when? till i vanish?

the world is moving on

while i sometimes wake up and realize,

i don’t quite remember what “outside” feels like. or smells like.

it constantly feels as though i am in the middle of the sea, floating.

sometimes i can see the shore,

i even try to swim to it but the waves are too harsh on me.

sometimes i do make it to the shore

but then find myself in the water, again.

not knowing how i got there.

– fatima alhashash

Locked inside houses

fear hurting our mental health

missing the sunshine – Hasan

Perspective

Although the world came to a complete shutdown

Our hearts opened up

We connected with our family’s

and managed to open up

Although the streets were empty

The house was filled up

With nostalgic connections

we should’ve never given up

In a world so fast, we needed a pause

to sit back and reflect

To dream of a better tomorrow

with a system less corrupt

To acknowledge that humans are humans

and lift each other up

I’m grateful for my privilege

and all the things I didn’t have to give up

I learned to be appreciative

even if it’s not enough

because even something so small

can mean so much

So, here’s to the future

and the struggles we’ve overcome

Through all these hardships

a better tomorrow will lift us all up.

Sara Mahmoud

Online Class

“Hello?”

The screen is black, the clock is ticking

“I can’t see you”

Did they forget to practice social distancing?

“Are you there?”

Did they switch their masks? The social and the medical?

“Can you hear me?”

I wonder what’s the problem, is it really just something technical?

“The connection is weak.”

I think all connections are weak, human ones the most

“Can you try again?”

I have, but then again, what is the cost?

“Hello? Answer, I insist!”

The participant you are trying to reach no longer exists

Hawra’a.M.Ali

Started as a global panic,

Then came the if’s and when’s, the memes the jokes

Then the need to blame.

Conspiracy theories followed.

and then—agonizingly slowly—acceptance found it’s way in

Some believed, others didn’t

… it seems as though the thousand lives we lost

aren’t enough of a testament

Forced us closer, yet continues to tear our insides apart

Call it earth’s revenge

Call it a tyrant with a crown

Alaa Alrabah

The new year started off with happiness until the Covid-19 disease suddenly appeared. Out of china it quickly spread and filled all cotenants with gloom and dread. The world was shook and in definite dismay that what thought to be a small invisible disease could take our lives away. Our normal lives disappeared and all we knew was quarantine appeared and took over our lives. There are victims of this uncontrollable pandemic, with no vaccines or cures. Covid is steeling husbands from wives and daughters from mothers and is leaving families crying for their suffering brothers. Covid has no preference to whom it chooses, it ravages its victims until they die. The only way humanity can be saved is by wearing masks. Empathy and love for each other could save the day, if each and every one of us follow everything the correct way. -Noora Mohammed

Birdwatcher, when do you get to be so wild?

When do you get to be free?

Birdwatcher, when was the last time the sunray touched your skin?

Windows shut and doors locked

War criminals on screen

Wish there was something better to see

I know it’s hard

Birdwatcher, you may lose your sanity

Just hold on to the stars before they fall into the midnight sea – Khaled Alajmi

“Sleepless Nights”

Imprisoned in our drunken thoughts of escaping

Is there any single hope for changing?

If the moon is a friend for the lonesome to talk to

Then why does it say, there is no directions available to pursue?

I wanted to live a dream, he granted it for me

And yet, there is no time to spare

O you, lonely soul, are you melancholy, or are you in despair?

Words cut like a knife sometimes

But it pierces my heart instead

They say that the end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end

Will it even ever change?

By Maryam Al-Qallaf

Dear diary, My father is sick and we don’t know if it is a flu or the virus that is taking over our lives. He is showing symptoms but we are kidding our selves by saying its not it.

Dear diary, My father did the corona test, they told us that if no one called you in twenty four hours that means you are negative. There is hope.

Dear diary, We were wrong to hope. They took my father to be isolated for recovery. They took him like a prisoner who was dangerous to society. We are all crying because of worry.

Dear diary, We are waiting for our results. The days are moving agonizingly slow. Will we be okay?

Dear diary, We are safe! That was the first light we saw after days of darkness.

Dear diary, My father is home. My father is safe, we are happy again.

-Zahra Alayan

How I am a “witness” of COVID-19:

I will try as much as possible not to seem like a drama queen while clarifying how it is to experience and to be a witness of a pandemic, which is COVID-19 in this case. I have never been through anything like this in my life nor have I ever thought of experiencing such thing. The virus happened so suddenly and unexpectedly; I do not think anybody have predicted anything like this to happen. In addition to this, it is so strange to me, how a teeny tiny virus, that cannot be seen by human beings’ naked eyes, can affect the whole world like this and turn it upside down, that can force you to stay quarantined, keep your social distance, that can force you to wear masks, bans you from many things including going outside and traveling, that has the ability of killing those old, poor people. However, we should still look at the bright side of the circumstance, we should still have hope, it will all end soon, nothing stays forever. – Amnah Rashed

in the span of 9 months, i have managed to reorganize my room twice, paint my sister’s wall, hyperventilate over online classes, solve endless crossword puzzles on the back of cereal boxes, re-read books that meant the world to me when i was 15,
felt nothing, felt everything
wondered if that’s what emily dickenson must’ve felt like all her life
what if isolation helped her tap deeply into herself allowing her to feel things: a lot, loudly, and too much
wondered how so much of her work now connects – despite her having the choice to self-isolate and i didnt
loved ones whom we saw everyday are no longer within arms reach
friends who knew our houses like the back of their hand
friends who shared inside jokes with our siblings and helped around the kitchen with our parents now solely exist through cracked phone screens – their laughter still managing to bounce off my living room walls
however, in the midst of all the frustration, fear and straight up anger
i found solace and solitude being around my family
i discovered my mother’s secret recipe to her triple chocolate cake, knew where my nephew hides his secret stash of gummy bears, and
laughed at old vhs tapes of ourselves doing the macarena in 2005
2020 has tested me in so many different ways, however, i have never had this much appreciation and gratitude for all the things i have as it was a chance to slow down, reorientate and reflect.
– noor