Women’s Day

International Women’s Day. A day that we celebrate, a day that is still yet to receive significant exposure. Today we think about how far we’ve come, about what still needs to be done to achieve gender equality, parity, and how we can further this agenda of women’s rights. I won’t go into the sociopolitical issues at hand, because this blog remains a personal one, but I do want to bring up a few ideas that crossed my mind.

Around me, there are beautiful, brave, strong women to celebrate. There are fighters, there are mothers, daughters, students, friends, colleagues- you name it. Each one is fighting a battle of her own. And perhaps it’s important to mention that Feminism is NOT a hatred of men, it is not us against them. At a gender parity forum today, a couple of academics and myself raised the fact that women can be hostile – they can wage wars among themselves. There is a division even between women, according to religion, social class, sect, economic position, etc.

In class the other day, I asked my students to work in pairs. I trusted that they would choose their partners efficiently, and that there would be no issues. By the time I looked up from my book, I asked if everyone had a partner. Everyone nodded and voiced “Yes.” Except for one girl. One girl who remains invisible to the rest. I’ll call her Britney, for anonymity’s sake. Britney has a mental disability, as well as a physical one. She is slightly slower than the rest, but works very hard to keep up. In fact, she tends to be the only one who reads the text before class. And yet, Britney is isolated, not spoken to. My students are adults, and yet I was suddenly reminded of how mean kids tend to be. Being picked last for the soccer team, or not being picked at all. I was reminded of how I have felt left behind way too many times in school. The utter humiliation she felt while she raised her hand to say “Me. I don’t have a partner” came crushing onto me. Some girls, unfortunately, giggled in the background. I don’t understand it and will not attempt to unravel this behavior. My reaction was: “Great. Then I’ll be your partner, Britney.” She beamed with pride. One student laughed and complained that that wasn’t “fair.”  I simply shrugged it off.

What’s not fair is the way our society insists on divisions, separations. On sexism AND ableism. What’s not fair is how we want to empower women, but continue to disempower those who are at a disadvantage in one way or another. So my pledge for today, my gender parity pledge is to continue to support those that need a helping hand. I believe it is a cycle. I was supported by wonderful and kind academics when I was an undergraduate, and today, I aim to do the same, to pay it forward.

So happy women’s day, but also – here’s to doing better.

   
     

On Mentors

I was invited to speak at the Knowledge Development Seminar (Arab Open University, Kuwait) and gave a lecture about the prevalence of madness in women’s literature. I won’t go into the academic details of the paper, as this blog is almost always personal, rather than academic. I was a bit worried about the lecture, as I have been dealing with the intricacies and inconsistencies of this condition of being human. I have been overwhelmed with exams, marking, research, and struggling with a body that refuses to behave according to my wishes and expectations. My body almost always seems to have a mind of its own, which fascinates me, because isn’t the body supposed to be controlled/regulated by the mind? But enough rambling about me.

I was lucky enough to have my friend, who used to be my professor, Hanan, prepare me for the talk. She would object and say “I didn’t prepare you, you already know it” but the truth of the matter is, every time I talk about theory with Hanan, my mind is refreshed, feels sharper, and I am able to see different sides of the argument. A literature and theory professor, Hanan has always been by my side, talking me through literature, academia, and life itself. I went from being Shahd (her student) to Dr. Shahd, more than a decade later. And I am ever so grateful that she has urged me to participate in class (when I was too shy to speak up) and today, I am able to give lectures on my own. And yet, I had to consult her before actually giving the lecture. We prepared answers for possible questions/attacks that could be presented. The counterarguments of madness, the history of madness, the institutionalization, and how do we even begin to talk about madness?

As for the lecture itself, my discussant was an amazing Professor of literature, Professor Mohiba, who has studied under wonderful theorists and critics (she had the pleasure of being around Michel Foucault himself), and was educated at a time when women were still struggling and fighting for their rights.  She has seen it all, the sixties, the seventies, up until today, where she continues to fight against injustice. She is a passionate, brilliant academic, one that I look up to and admire. I have learned so much from her, just from being around her, listening to her, and I am mesmerized by the amount of passion she has for education, for speaking up, for fighting against all forms of oppression. She reassured me that the talk would be successful, and that the paper had great potential, while simultaneously pointing me in the right direction, gently guiding me, telling me what the argument needs to be developed. Even when someone fired a question that I was unable to answer, Professor Mohiba jumped to the rescue, diving into her years of expertise, and formed a very well-rounded answer. Following her lead, I was able to pick up.

And that is the beauty of real academics, real mentors. They are your friends first and foremost, they want to see you succeed, be the very best version of yourself, and they hold your hand, while still giving you a sense of autonomy and independence. They don’t believe in spoon-feeding, they don’t believe in giving you answers, they don’t believe in making it easier for you. The real academics are the ones who push you, who criticize you, support you, and tell you that you are capable. I have been blessed with having these two very brilliant women in my life, and I have been watching and learning from them, while at the same time developing my own academic identity.

So this post is filled with gratitude. This post is about mentors being our friends, about academia, about women who support other women, about the beauty of education, and mainly, if you’re an academic reading this, I would urge you to do the same, to guide, not to lead, to support, not put down, to create, not destroy, to build, and to watch as your students grow into themselves and become leaders.

And here’s to a new semester, filled with excitement and change!

Talk on Writing and Literature

I recently gave a talk at the Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST). The talk was mainly aimed at fostering a love for writing and literature. I spoke about my personal experience with writing poetry, and I interviewed an old colleague and friend of mine, Dhari Buyabes. Dhari has written a novel, and we discussed the significance of writing in English, and how we both dealt with the experience of writing in English as non-native speakers.

The audience was very receptive and I really enjoyed the conversation with the students. I was very happy to see that many Kuwaitis are interested in writing in English, not just Arabic, and that it is no longer viewed as a betrayal of the mother tongue. We also spoke about the healing power of literature and writing, and how writing can be very therapeutic. I love talks like this, talks that aim to inform, educate, and also simply allow us to connect to one another.

As always, I am blessed to be an academic!

   
 

What Went Right

As this blog remains a personal rather than an academic one (but the personal and the academic are always intertwined for me), I was hesitant to write about this. But here goes. Recently I have suffered from a physical relapse, one that has hindered my ability to walk. I have also developed tremors, a very nasty and frustrating shaking that does not seem to go away. I won’t go into the boring details, but suffice it to say that it has been a challenging month.School started, and faculty had to go back to campus. I was very hesitant about showing up to school with a cane. Yet I did, and it was fine, but of course there had to be one remark that infuriated me. A superior suggested that it was “all in my head” and that I should “toughen up.” At the time, I was struck by the audacity, and was unable to respond. Later, of course, I dealt with the situation. But again, this post isn’t about negativity or what went wrong.

Let’s talk about what went right. I went to the University of Oxford for a conference I had been so excited about. I had spent months waiting for this conference, waiting to visit Oxford, to speak at the conference. I was giving a paper on madness and its potential for subversion. I never imagined it’d be like this – that I would go alone, and that I would go not as functional as I would have hoped. Simply, I was scared. When I voiced my fear to a wonderful person, Dr. Noor, someone with both a scientific background and an interest in Disability Studies, she told me that my fears were “perfectly normal.” A conference, in itself, is nerve-racking, she assured me, and to add to that, a body that is struggling to make it. We had met during an informal meeting to discuss our careers, but we quickly established a strong connection. Dr. Noor and I work from similar angles, similar research frameworks. We consider the ways by which illness and the body is socially constructed, how a sense of identity emerges, and the importance of dialogue between physicians-patients-society. This is a three way conversation which still needs to begin. 

I might be portraying Dr. Noor as simply a colleague, but she is way beyond that. She has helped me on a personal level, and is a friend I have been blessed with. Even when I suggested that I may be afraid of going to Oxford alone, her response was: “But I believe in you, Shahd.” We spoke about how hard it might be, but how I would have to get out of my comfort zone, if I really wanted to attend the conference (which I did)!

I am glad I didn’t give up on it. I was about to. Family and friends told me that there would be many other conferences, better health days. But if you know me at all, you would recall that I do live for the moment. I live for today. Maybe the circumstances weren’t the best, but I learned that every time it feels like it’s almost over, that is the crucial point where you shouldn’t give up. That’s the very moment where you shouldn’t let go.

I have been let go of, very recently. On a personal level, someone I believed would be there for me, there with me (at Oxford and everywhere else), has decided that it was time to move on. Of course this hurts. And it leaves you wondering where you went wrong. What you possibly could’ve said or done, or changed in yourself, to make them stay. At the same time, my walking ability has decided to let go of me, at least for awhile. Perhaps we’re on a break, as I like to think of it.

On the flight, I was recognized by students who made the connection that I was “Dr. Shahd” who teaches English. One of them was especially happy to be sitting next to me, and she was very friendly. When we landed in London, she noticed that I had a cane. The look of horror and shock on her face was something else. She couldn’t help herself and started asking so many questions. I responded and explained that I was okay, but she insisted on knowing “how” ‘why” and if I was “born this way.” That’s a story on its own, but again, suffice it to say that I handled it. 

At the conference, which was on madness, the social construction of illness, mental and physical, and its representations throughout history and literature – we spoke about how normalcy is overrated. I was reminded by a friend’s consolation of me by saying “Walking is so overrated.”

 But here’s the thing, at the conference, amongst academics, I felt like I finally belonged. A professor of Schizophrenia and madness, asked me how I felt about MS. I explained that it was a random disability, and I alternated between the binary of abled/disabled. He called it “Bonkers!” and asked me to “enjoy!” Richard and I became good friends afterwards. He was right to suggest that it was bonkers, and to tell me to enjoy, because this strange state of being human is always enjoyable, in its complexities, its inconsistences, and its nonsense. 

And maybe what went right was that it was okay that everything went “wrong.” 

Here are some images of the trip. 

   
     

How She Taught me to Read

My mother was the first person who taught me how to read. She realized, at a very early age, that that was all I wanted to do. I would look at billboards and signs and get frustrated that I couldn’t read. I had problems at school, and was considered a bit slower than my peers. I couldn’t master the art of reading or math. My mother devised a plan. She bought a deck of colorful cards and wrote words on them. Simple words. We would sit on the floor together every night and “play” the card game, trying to create meaningful sentences. Each card was a different color. 

I don’t remember this, but I am told the first sentence I managed (with her help) to construct was “I can read.”  Mom had previously chosen all the words, and I put them together. My mother is a beautiful soul who believes in education, enlightenment, and she gave me the tools I needed to become who I am today: a Professor of Literature. I was born in an oppressive environment where girls weren’t granted equal status and even education was a privilege. 

This is what she had to say on raising me, in her own words, in Arabic:
أؤمن باني أتيت لهذا العالم لأختلف عنه ولأثبت بأن المرأه دوماً مكانها بالمقدمه سواسيه مع الرجل وليس بالخلف

وكان ذلك النهار الذي أتى مع قيود سجن العادات والتقاليد السامه، مما جعل طريق الطفله غير آمِن .. كان لا بد من كسر جدران قيود السجن 

وكانت بداية انطلاق الثوره التي لم تأتي كباقي الثورات وتخلف ورائها دمار ودكتاتوريه واضطهاد

بل كانت ثوره ناضجه هدفها(الثوره على الذات) وليس على قيود السجن

الطريق كان واحد

(اقرأ) 

نشأت الطفله الصغيره وهي تحلم ليس بامتلاك لعبه باربي تسجنها في سجن الجسد

بل لتحلم بان تتمكن من قهر الظلام بنور القراءه 

وكانت اكبر سعاده داعبت قلب الطفله عندما تعلمت الحروف وصرخت بأجمل خبر ولاده سمعته البشرية بكلمات لا أنساها ( I can Read) 

تفرح البنات بالمكياج، بالألعاب، بالماديات

وفرحت طفلتي بنور القراءه

وكانت تلك لحظة ولادة الثوره الناجحه وانطلقت الروح حره لحرية الفكر والوعي 

تحول كل ظلام الى نور

تحول كل وجع وألم بالجسد الى انتصار …وكيف لا وقد شربت الطفله غذاء الروح

وكان التحرر من قيود الجسد…تعلمت طفلتي ان تكون راضيه وسعيده بصرف النظر عن أي حواجز أو قيود فكريه او اجتماعيه او حتى عقائديه 

…نور الوعي واليقظة والفكر المتفتح وقبول المختلف هو الباقي 

On Monsters

I am teaching an Introduction to Literature class, a basic one that covers different genres. We discussed Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae.” The students had extremely different reactions to Atwood’s style and exploration of monstrosity. For the basic summary of the story, I would suggest just reading it. It’s only 3 pages, and is available online.

The protagonist is an unnamed character, a “lusus naturae” (which really means a freak of nature), and is rejected from society. She is born a healthy girl, but soon becomes monstrous and deformed. She is neither fully human nor animal, we are unsure what exactly she “is.” As readers, we are simply aware of the vagueness of her state of being. Her family eventually gets rid of her, because they are ashamed of her, and are afraid of what the neighbors would say once they notice that she is not a “normal” girl.

At first, the students took this text as a purely fictional, imaginative work. Once I drew their attention to the term “monster” and the permeability of the boundaries between human/animal, healthy/unhealthy, man/woman, they were able to question their assumptions about normalcy and deviancy. The monster, the freak, the outcast, the reject is a symbol, a metaphor for all that is foreign and other to us. As always, we drew on our own experiences of marginalization, as women, as lacking in one way or another. The conversation, of course, drifted to the idea of the “ideal woman” and perfection. I joked about how when wrinkles start appearing on our faces, or when we gain a bit of weight, we are told to quickly hide it, to take care of it, to attempt to look good again, by society’s standards of “looking good” and “normalcy.” Anything else is ugly, deformed, and monstrous. We look away when we see someone deformed or disabled. We claim we don’t judge, but subconsciously at least, we judge. We blame people who are overweight for not going to the gym, for eating too much junk food. We criticize the girl who doesn’t have makeup on to conceal the dark circles under her eyes. We feel superior to those “others” that reconfirm to us our own “goodness” and “normalcy.” They, the others, are the monsters, and we are the “humans.”

The question I posed in class, and the question we kept thinking about: who are the real monsters? The monster figure is so important because of its multi-layered meanings and definitions. Edward Cullen, of Twilight, is yet another “monster”, a vampire that is capable of love, and yet isn’t fully human. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, typical monster/human boundary, is able to find love once Belle sees through his deformity. Yet does that mean the Beast got lucky? Are there real Belles in the world? How much are we really willing to look past ideas of perfection and normalcy? What is your personal standard and definition? What do you look for? Are you a monster? How many times have you hurt others, harmed them and excused it? I have quoted Mark Twain in the past, and I’ll do it again: “Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.”

Of course, as always, the board went crazy (or I went crazy) with ideas and keywords.


And that’s all for now.

Literary Heroism

Literature has saved my life. In more ways than one. Without literature, without my books, my theories, the world would be an abyss, and I would definitely be a bigot. I would be angry and bitter. Recently, I taught a Survey course – it covered major writers of the 15th century all the way to the 18th. Not exactly my area of interest, as I have always been more interested in the Victorian era, and gender/body studies. I also like to think of myself as a Disability Studies scholar (although labels unnerve me) – and it is difficult to claim any sort of “Academic identity.”  Literature has been the Hero of my life, all along. When all else failed, and people let go- Literature has persevered. More often than not, when people admire my perseverance, I am uncomfortable. It was never me- the real hero is Literature.

That said, one of the most rewarding joys of my life is teaching. I think I am always dancing on the inside when I talk about Shakespeare and Milton and Chaucer. When I see my students’ faces as they wonder how Cathy betrayed Heathcliff, I grin back at them. How could she have married Edgar? And why is it that women still choose to be with someone they love less? Can you love two people at the same time? No. There is always a difference in affection, in emotion. Let us analyze. And that is the beauty of literature. It’s all about this condition of being human: confused and imperfect.

But then my identity is so tied up with my disability. I still call it a disability, even though most of the time it is an invisible disability. I have been struggling with Multiple Sclerosis, a progressive neurological illness for the past twelve years. There are good days and bad days. On good days, you’d think I’m making it all up. In class, sometimes, my students turn into blurry blobs. The letters are unreadable, the pages of the book are hard to turn. Everything requires effort. I need to stretch in class, and one can only do this a few times without appearing ridiculously awkward. By the time I am home, I need to recharge for the next day. And so on. This leaves almost no room for socializing. By no means is this meant to be a complaint session- my job is a commitment I am more than happy to maintain.

Commitment in all areas of life can be scary. I understand what a lack of security entails. I do not trust tomorrow, and I am nearly certain I cannot count on my body (that is, the closest part of my ethereal self). Yet, because of this fear of the future, because of the acceptance of the unknown, I have embraced some commitments that I have today. I am committed to teaching, to learning something new as my students are learning key concepts for the first time, and the small difference I make in their lives. When a student tells me about an illness or how she is struggling with Cancer, I tell her to keep going. When she asks why, why if it is inevitable that death will approach, I stare silently before I answer. She is right. Death is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. Even in love, it begins to slowly change with time. We all change, we all “lose.” But that’s one way of looking at it. Change has other dimensions. Even in loss, there is gain. Even in change, there is a newness, a difference, an experience that brings you closer to understanding the depths of life and what it means to be human. We wonder if we can trust each  other, if we can trust life, and the naive answer would be to say “yes.” I say, it’s not necessarily a yes- it is a different type of yes. Someone I trust gave me a new equation, and this equation entails love. A love that saves, a love that heals, a love that transforms, but most importantly a love that accepts change. What is left at the end of the day but soul? Soul in everything. Your soul. Your desire for life. Your desire to try. To live, to love, to work, to discover meaning.

Lately I am struggling with change. I have learned to accommodate my weaknesses, but I am still finding new ways to work around lack. I am the International Editor of a disability journal that considers all different ways of ideal bodies, perfect states of being, health and society, sexuality, and perceptions of normalcy. And yet the irony is, I cannot provide definitions of my own identity, let alone make sense of social and cultural assumptions of disability. I am starting to accept that I may need to use a wheelchair (it is becoming increasingly difficult to walk) and I am wondering what this will do to self-esteem, autonomy and independence. But here’s what I do know: I committed myself to teaching. Whatever happens, I will do that, even if I have to roll into class one day.

And that’s all for now. 

Thoughts on Salome

“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” Oscar Wilde, Salome. (1831).

I recently watched Salome. It was recommended by someone who knows the intricacies of my mind, my passion for words, and my love for theater. This film is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. Of course, I read the actual script after watching the film. It had me hooked, and definitely in love. Salome is a fiery woman, a woman who is a legend, and there are numerous adaptations, Biblical allusions, and sexual imagery. The storyline is fascinating, the dialogue is gripping, and the performance is wonderful. I only wish I could attend this play live. I believe the film doesn’t do it justice.

Filled with sexual connotations, passion, desire and death, there is a blurring of the line between love/obsession, passion and lack, madness and sanity, purity/virginity and sexual desire. There is also the idea of the body as spectacle. The play, critically speaking, is infested with the idea of the “male gaze” and surprisingly, this femme-fatale image. Salome’s double, I think, is the moon. The moon in all its seductiveness, glamor, beauty, is also dangerous. The moon mirrors Salome’s psyche and character. There is simply too much to write about and think about when analyzing Salome. I have always been fascinated with “madwomen” and women who are considered “troubled.” The Young Syrian, a character who is obsessed with Salome states: “She is like a dove that has strayed..She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind. She is like a silver flower.”  The moon here is a metaphor. The idea of “looking” and being “looked at” is also part of this story’s complexity. To be looked at is to be seen. However, it depends on who is looking. You can have the wrong person “looking” at you, and all you want is for the right person, that “right love” to look at you. You want to be seen by him/her. Salome’s passion, her tragic ending, her desire to be seen, to kiss the man she has chosen is so intense. I was left gazing at the screen, shocked, uncomfortable with the bloodiness of it all. All she wanted was his “lips” and yet it is far greater than sexual. There is a union. There is a desire to merge with the lover, with the object of affection.

I won’t ruin the entire plot, but it is highly recommended. I will be looking into Salome’s legend and hopefully dissect it even more.

Side note: it is so refreshing when someone can access your brain and soul almost as much as you can.

Here are some beautiful excerpts:

“Ah, Iokanaan, Iokanaan, thou wert the man that I loved alone among men! All other men were hateful to me. But thou wert beautiful! Thy body was a column of ivory set upon feet of silver. It was a garden full of doves and lilies of silver. It was a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory. There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. There was nothing in the world so black as thy hair. In the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music. Ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me, Iokanaan?”
Oscar Wilde, Salome
“I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire . . .”

And the link:

What Doesn’t Meet the Eye

Because I choose to identify as a Disability Studies scholar, I am always interested in this elusive entity of pain. Pain and suffering. Society attempts to regulate individual and collective responses to pain and its expression. I am endlessly fascinated by the politics at hand, and wonder how my life has taken an often ambiguous approach to the expression of pain.

As most of my friends and readers know, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) a bit before the age of eighteen. Today, nearly twelve years later, I am struggling on a daily basis. I don’t write to communicate constant complaints, but rather, I write for exposure of that which makes people uncomfortable: the continuing presence of pain. To communicate pain is to enter a very complex dialogue. Sometimes people pretend it’s not there. Sometimes, they call you dramatic. And sometimes they choose to ridicule it, through humor, sarcasm, or other methods of “coping” with the reality.

The reality is: it is mine. My body. So how can it be judged, dismissed, or managed? This is a long argument – and this blog remains more personal than academic. And since I believe the two are very interrelated, my post today is about judgment. People still judge a book by its cover. What you see is what you get. After all these centuries of trial and error, people still do it.

With MS, what you see is not always what you get. Yesterday I bought a car. It is a beautiful car. I worked hard for this car. But what most people don’t know is what a car actually means to me. It is a process that involves independence and autonomy. In the past, I have spent months not being able to drive. Someone who used to love me very much drove me around most of the time. Driving was not just taken for granted. Being able to feel the steering wheel, having enough energy to press the brakes, being able to coordinate movement smoothly – this is all part of the process of driving. Most of us drive without thinking of all of these details.

A driver usually drives me to work, because I try to conserve my energy until I arrive to campus. I was almost going to buy a bigger car, a car that would allow me to sit in the backseat while the driver drives. I was very sad and frustrated about this. My very good friends urged me to reconsider. Sara, who I have written about previously in the post “A Dose Called Beirut” told me that I was still young, and a lighter, smoother car might be easier to drive than a jeep. Sara’s support has been endless, simply because she is a believer. She believes in trying, in not letting go of a dream. One of my dreams this year was to buy this car, or any car really, a car that I would drive on my own. Nourah, my good friend, said the same (using her own method of support and humor). She reminded me that I could always use two cars. On bad days, the driver could drive, and on good days, even if they are just a few, I should drive. I should enjoy whatever youth and energy I still have.

As the years go by, as I grow older, I feel that my body is deteriorating. I know that the disease progress is inevitable. On some days, I struggle to walk, to get from my bedroom to the kitchen. The chronic fatigue is eating me up. And there is nothing anyone can do. When I bought a car, I did not buy it simply to buy a car. A few people criticized the choice of car, saying that Kuwait’s streets can only handle a bigger car, a jeep. But it takes more effort. It is even more difficult to get into a jeep. Again, movement. Coordination. Things that you do automatically. I think about all of these things because I am forced to. And like I always say, and try to implement: do what you want today. It’s just today, anyway.

And that’s all for now.