Tell Me.

“Have we met before?”

“No, because I don’t believe in past lives.”

“Then how is it you already know too much?”

“Tell me.”

And that was it. I told you everything. Maybe I told you too much. Maybe I gave it all away. Open-book syndrome, they say. We sat down, across from each other, the wind blowing outside, and it was noisy. I had to look you straight in the eye and tell you what I feared telling you the most. And you said you already knew.

I remember that night, even though my memory betrays me, lies to me, deceives me. I could have made it all up.

You had that drink they used to sell at Starbucks years ago, I forget the name. Caramel hot chocolate, was it? Your caramel curls, inquisitive eyes, nervous laughter, and me, talking about how all I wanted in life was to be a professor. When I said it out loud, my voice cracked.

“You will be,” you said, smiling at me, like I was the only person in the world with a dream.

“I love how optimistic you are. But I am a realist. It’s all downhill with me. Can’t we just accept it?”

“You’re too strong to accept it.”

Perhaps you overestimated me. Or maybe I glorified my supposed strengths. I should have been human. I should have cried out when you walked away. This superhuman is an illusion. I was the first to give it up. No superhuman ever suffered from lack. But I have my dream now – and a phantom limb that is you.

Thoughts on Character and Damage

This is yet another one of my favorite novels. Here is the link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10746542-the-sense-of-an-ending.

The Sense of an Ending. Even the title captivates. As usual, this is not a book review, but a brief commentary on how the book affects me. Yes, it’s always about the reader. Reader-response theory all the way, baby.

The writer ponders life – a major theme, but he also considers the similarities between life and literature. Of course, literature mimics life, and also distorts it. But I am concerned with our lives. Are they actually better than/worse than fiction? Here’s the quote:

“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents–were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was about: Love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God.”

When I talk to people (and I love talking to people, about the deep, real, raw instances of life), their stories usually share a similar theme: a lack of contentedness. A struggle for happiness. A desire to be happy, fulfilled, but just not being able to reach that state. I have spoken to people my age, people younger, and those who are older. People who are healthy, people who are single, married, divorced, widowed – all sorts of people. And yet when I ask “are you happy?” I am usually met with silence, tears, or shock. The shock comes from my question, I think. We hardly ask. Are you happy? Are you okay? And when people do ask if you’re “okay”, they rarely ever wait for a response. As characters, as people, they have grown accustomed to a life filled with conflict and damage.

Which brings me to the second quotation, also one that has affected me greatly:

“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not,except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it,and how this affects our dealings with others.Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it;some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”

We are all damaged. Some of us beyond repair. Some of us still try to find a sense of lightness. Some try to heal. Others take up therapy, others become healers, while others just disconnect entirely from the world of emotions, to “avoid further damage.” Does it mean they are ruthless, like Barnes states? I disagree. But I do wonder whether damage really lasts a lifetime. Do damaged people bring on further damage to those around them? A friend says we always need to be in a “healthy” environment, away from anyone that is emotionally damaging to our well-being. I haven’t made up my mind. As always, I am listening, observing, and analyzing. My one conclusion so far is that we are all one Psycho Nation. 

Formula

The other day I was with a group of friends, and one of them knows who I was ten years ago. She was telling a “new” friend about how Shahd used to be really tough, scary, and difficult to approach. I thought about this for awhile. I used to be very defensive. I used to be guarded, at all times. I was rational, and always very afraid of emotion, of drama, and of people. I still don’t enjoy being around too many people. Give me one or two at a time. Intimate conversation over coffee, never a group’s gathering. I hate having to politely socialize and I end up extremely awkward anyway.

So throughout the past decade, and especially the past year, I have shed a layer or two of my skin. I am not as thick-skinned as I used to be. Back in the day, criticism wouldn’t make or break me. Today, it affects me. I am left baffled and insulted. When I was younger, I would shrug my shoulders and assume the bully has issues (smart, I know). But today, as an adult, I can’t make sense of unkindness. I can’t understand why people poke at your wounds once they know just how bad they are. I don’t like confrontation much, but sometimes I think I’d rather be a child shoving someone back when they shove me. That simple. But with adult language, with etiquette, with sensitivity, “proper socializing”, one stops and thinks. We have to assess the situation. Is it worth speaking up? Is it worth inflicting pain on the other person? Maybe we should excuse their behavior? Then again, how much is enough?

As much as I despise confrontation, because of how difficult it is to show vulnerability (which is automatically read as weakness), I hate the aftermath of it. I can’t deal with silence, passive aggressiveness, and yet I also cannot handle a war-zone of aggression and insults. Women are labeled as “emotional”, “crazy”, “unpredictable” – and what bothers me is when women do it to each other. I don’t understand how emotions are dismissed, how “dramatic” becomes the easiest term to throw around, when instead we should really listen. We don’t listen. I don’t mean listening to the words. Over the years, I’ve learned to be less defensive, yes. I’ve learned to listen, to listen to the silence, to the words left unsaid, to see through patterns and assess before I conclude. But this has left me more open to injury. Am I right to believe we need to be neither rational nor emotional, neither defensive nor defenseless? In theory, yes, it sounds do-able. Now for the application. How? Can someone give me a formula I can depend on?

Random 

I lost my hearing today – only for a few hours, luckily. And I sat thinking about what it must be like to live completely deaf. One adapts. 

We are always so scared of deafness, blindness, paralysis, the deterioration of the body. But everything we are so afraid of is actually not as terrifying when it actually happens. When we lose someone we love, we think we’ll never get out of bed in the morning. When we lose one of our senses, we think we’ll never survive. 

But this survival is a concept that needs a longer post. I need to think about survival, and what it means. I wish there was a course we could all sign up for: Survival 101. And once you pass the course, you’re set for life. Then again, we’re never really set for life. Perhaps that’s the miscalculation right there. It’s all random. 

I probably should make friends with Randomness already. As an individual, I have always been so predictable, so consistent, and yet everything about my body, and how I react to it, is random and inconsistent. 

And that’s all for now

Personal Feminism

When you tell people you’re a feminist, especially academics, they expect you to believe in some universal definition, in a description that almost sounds formulaic. When you tell men that you’re a feminist, they tend to cringe or roll their eyes. Then there are those who refuse to be labeled as feminists, for fear of identifying as less feminine, more butch, and isolating the opposite sex.

But I am a feminist. And in a very personal sense. Most of my friends and social circle today believe that I have always been a liberal, that I grew up granted a freedom which others would view as normal human rights. This wasn’t always the case. By the age of four, I was aware that everyone around me made fun of my curly hair. Both women and men, even random strangers, advised my mother to tame it, to make me look more like a girl. When I started school, the dress-code was dresses for girls. This wasn’t okay with me. And so my mother let that spark of rebellion grow – until that spark turned into anger, and anger turned into motivation, and motivation turned into a desire to be treated equally, equal to my brother, who at the time was treated better at home, even though he was younger. He had something I didn’t have: born with a male organ. It was that simple.

When I tell people how constricting my childhood and teenage years were, they smile in disbelief. Yes, I was in a private, co-ed school. But nobody knows how hard my mother fought for my education (and my sisters’, for that matter). In my father’s community, girls were meant to be married by the age of 18, if not earlier. They were meant to cover up. To wear long dresses. To tie their hair. To not attract attention. To not have guy friends. To learn how to cook. To eat after the men in the house, never eat with them. To stand meekly near the door while they shoved their way in. To bow their heads when spoken to, never to talk back, and to always, always, appear as polite and modest as ever. How does that fit with the ideals of an American education? Paradoxical much?

My mother introduced me to feminism at a very young age. She made me listen to Nawal Elsaadawi, because I had trouble reading her works in Arabic. She grew up in the 70’s reading Nawal’s controversial and feminist declarations, sneaking her books into bed, and was constantly criticized for identifying with her. People around my mother labeled her as dangerous, immodest and wild. But it was this very same lack of immodesty, this wildness, that equipped her with the tools necessary to help liberate her own daughters. Standing in the face of a Bedouin community, she insisted on equal educational rights, on teaching her daughters that female slavery was not acceptable, and that there was a way out – no matter how long the journey took. It was no easy task. I recall crying and screaming at her to get me out of a community that made me feel inferior, shameful, and constantly lacking. I hated how school was marketed at home as a privilege, rather than a right. My peers believed school was their right, having boyfriends was natural, wearing stylish (and revealing) clothes was normal, and grades didn’t matter as much as having fun. For me, everything was considered a privilege, and could be taken away at any given moment.

My mother was shunned for her beliefs, and she was accused of raising women that would one day be too rebellious. But I know that if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t walk out of the house with my head held high. I wouldn’t love my curls. I wouldn’t wear jeans proudly. I would worry about how society labels me.

The point of this long post: I took my younger sister to a conference where Nawal Elsaadawi was speaking. She got to meet her, and I got my mother a signed copy of one of her books. I told Nawal my mother raised us to be rebels. My sister was ecstatic, because like me, she has been raised to fight for herself and even more than me, to fight for humanity. My sister is a young activist, interested in human rights and politics. And my other baby sister is an artist who believes in breaking rules and transcending boundaries. We are three very different women, all the product of one Feminist, mom, who made sure we got an equal shot at life.

Here is an excerpt from Nawal’s speech at the Emirates Festival of Literature:

A Dose of Beirut

How many times have you found yourself thinking “Carpe diem” is so cliché? When did it lose its effect? I’m certain Horace would’ve never anticipated that the phrase would turn into a way of life. But the truth is, most of us don’t seize the day. We think we’ll be superhuman today and tomorrow. We think we’ll get yet another chance to do everything we want to tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow *sings Annie’s musical for you*…. but the way I see it, the cliché here is assuming we’ll still get another tomorrow, and a bunch of tomorrows where everything works out in our favor. Pessimist? I think not. A few months ago, I didn’t want another tomorrow. I was on medication that was meant to help increase my energy, and it did wonders, but left me immensely depressed and horribly sad. I was angry at the world, at my existence, and I was just unmotivated. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, and when I did, I complained about the possibility of yet another day stuck in a suffering body. 

 But this post is supposed to be about positivity and life. One of the beautiful things I have re-discovered is friendship. I met someone who was eager to get to know me and listened to my complaints, my heartbreaks, and my fears. Sara, my good friend, pushed herself out of her comfort zone to help me out of mine. She was surprised when she found out that there were many things I was afraid of doing, many places I hadn’t seen, and that I was struggling to make sense of pain, in all of its forms. So Sara and I both helped each other recover a sense of youth and positivity. We planned a trip to Beirut, Lebanon, and I was worried I would not be able to keep up with her and her friend, who was also traveling with us. I have not been able to keep up with people my age for years. I simply have learned to avoid trying to keep up. I have felt embarrassed and worried, and I used to hate being called a “party pooper” – the person who goes to bed early and cannot go crazy, as crazy as young and healthy people are supposed to be. Sara was an amazing tour guide, a beautiful friend, and a great deal of support. She has been referred to as “too kind” by those around her. That’s where I think people are wrong. When did kindness become a flaw? Because of this supposed excess of kindness, Sara helped me out of my comfort zone. Beirut wasn’t just beautiful because of its scenery, its simplicity, its people, but it was beautiful because it was an experience that reminded me of the ability to live, to move forward, and to have friends who love you just the way you are. Traveling and sight-seeing requires effort, both physical and mental. I was scared I would not be able to do it, but I did (and it was no easy task). But again, my friend was understanding and supportive, she drove most of the time and kept urging me to take naps in the backseat of the car. 

We went to a place called Faraya, where we rented snowmobiles and drove around in snow. Because my hands are not so trustworthy, and my physical stamina can betray me at any given moment, I wasn’t sure I could drive. Sara understood, but then asked me to just try. The magic words: “Just try.”  Cliché? You’d be surprised. I joked about allowing someone with MS to take control of the wheel (or pedals). But I did ‘just try.’ And I loved it. The thrill for me was not simply driving a snowmobile- it was actually being able to do something different, something I usually cannot do. Of course the pain comes afterwards, but as usual, no regrets, no regrets. 



 Here are some pictures of Beirut . And again, people, seize the day. Really. And that’s all for now.





Confession

Sometimes loss opens your eyes to its counterpart, and there is something to gain. Sometimes we are preoccupied with all that is missing, all that is wrong, and everything that isn’t as beautiful as we wish. Recently, I have gone through something very difficult, and I have felt that the world was a very dark and alienating place. I used to be an optimist, and I still like to think I retain some characteristics of an optimist, but I am no longer the same person I was a few months back. I am aware that we are always evolving, always changing, and we don’t actually remain untouched, untainted and unchanged by the world. I began to fear that as I was starting to physically deteriorate, I would no longer find happiness and/or beauty anywhere.

When reality hits, your views on life, love, and even friendships are shaken. But then I had that moment, as I always do. That one moment, where one missing piece of the puzzle finds its way into your brain, and you realize that there is more in front of you than you could have ever understood. One day, as I was on the couch, feeling physically dead, and nonchalant, that missing puzzle piece spoke to me, and she whispered, “You are an Assistant Professor of literature now. Do you understand what that means?” She asked me why I was so numb, why I didn’t seem to embrace my happy moment. Once a dream, now my reality… this was now a part of my identity – academic identity, at least. The point where numbness and raw emotion meet, the point where they collide, that exact second when someone’s genuine love jolts your senses – something suddenly aches. I realized that it was a deep place within me, an ache that was more grateful than painful, grateful that there was depth somewhere, and I had been touched by it. I had been so alienated from the world, from myself, that I struggled to find meaning and beauty anywhere. But my missing piece reminded me. I think we all have these pieces, floating around, just waiting for us to reach out and claim them.

I think I’ll be ending all my personal posts with this: and that’s all for now.

October 2014: PhD Viva

I was eighteen years old when my neurologist informed me that I would never be able to do anything that my peers would. I was told that I shouldn’t compare myself to people my age, that I was now dealing with a chronic illness, and that I would have to adjust my life and brain settings to accept loss. Losing one’s senses is terrifying. Losing the ability to walk, to see, to hear, to feel – to name a few examples – leaves you very afraid of the future. The uncertainty that comes with living with MS, an unstable and very random disease, can diminish any sense of security that we tend to take for granted. For the past 12 years, the minute I open my eyes in the morning, I look up at the ceiling and realize I’m still here, I can see, and that my legs are functional today.

But I digress. Even though living with MS has been quite scary, it has also given me the desire to live life to the fullest, to live in the moment, in that moment where everything is okay, I am still here, I am still feeling like myself (or the closest version to my old self).

So in 2014, I finally earned my PhD in English Literature. People have congratulated me, as they always do with any success. But I do not feel that being academically successful has been my goal. I merely wanted a chance at pursuing a dream, a goal, and a sense of identity. My PhD is not just academic success, it is a personal one. When I had my Viva, like all other PhD students, I was scared and tense. I was not sure if I could answer the examiners’ questions, if I could prove that my work was good enough, and if I was capable of establishing ‘new grounds’ for academic research. What was worse though, I was not sure if I could handle hours of an oral examination without my body (and brain) shutting down. I informed the examiners and the Disability Office ahead of time that I would require a break. Because I suffer from extreme fatigue, my body chooses to start shutting down at the worst and most unexpected times. And that was exactly what happened during the defense. After about half an hour, I was starting to see blurry examiners, my speech slurred, and my hand announced its tremor. My body needed to rest, to sleep, as soon as possible. And yet there was no escape. I had to keep going, and when the main examiner noticed that I was not feeling well, he asked me if I was okay. Now, if you know me at all, you would know how difficult it is for me to say “No, I’m not.” I despise having to do that, to admit defeat, especially at times where I really have to be okay.

I was given a five minute break. I stepped outside, took a deep breath, and started stretching. Stretching my muscles helps relieve some of the spasticity. Of course I looked very silly, I am certain, and the examiner was surprised to see that that was my idea of a break, rather than a bathroom break. Finally, after hours of going through the endless sections of the thesis, I was informed that I was now Dr. Shahd Alshammari, and that I had passed without any corrections. The external examiner commented that both examiners had noticed how tired I was, and said “despite your deteriorating health, you did well.” After the viva, my body crashed for a week.

And today I am writing this post, months later, realizing that it was never about academic success. It was never about the degree. It was always about life. It was about a chance. Just a chance, a chance to be, to become. I am no longer that eighteen year old who was told to be realistic, that my disease was progressive. I am now a twenty-eight year old who believes my disease is progressive, and being realistic means living despite reality. Sometimes it just takes a bit of dreaming, a dose of optimism perhaps, a belief that there is always that one percent that life can give you a chance, a shot at being. I have realized that it was really never about the destination, and that it has always been all about the journey. I got to travel – and go places, and that has defined my life in endless ways.

Below is the photo I insisted on taking with Professor Abdulrazak, Head of Department at Kent, and Dr. James Watt, of Cambridge.

Phd Viva

An Open Letter

I am not writing this to elicit your sympathy. This is not a cry for help. I am not interested in moving you. But, this is an open letter, to the world, to my family, my loved ones, and those I’m yet to meet.

I am a 28 year old who feels like a 60 year old. I look good, though, by society’s standards of “good looks” and a “healthy” appearance. I drive a Blue jeep, and you would never guess that there are days where I struggle with the steering wheel. I’m just about to get my PhD in English Literature, but I have spent years coping with chronic fatigue that has made my research nights incredibly difficult. There were nights when I typed up my thesis using one hand, one eye closed and the other half-peering at the screen. It took double the time and effort. Let’s just say, it was no easy road (but then again, a PhD journey hardly ever is).

But what bothers me? Is it the fact that I have Multiple Sclerosis, a progressive and degenerative disease that affects young adults? A random disease that has no scientifically proven cause? No, not really. MS is a hassle, but I have been living with it for twelve years. We’re pretty much acquainted now. What really annoys me, aggravates me, and leaves me wanting to constantly write about my experience with MS, is the lack of awareness and lack of understanding that I am faced with. People don’t get it. Not because they don’t want to, but because it’s difficult to believe someone with an ‘invisible’ illness. It’s difficult to imagine. And because you don’t see it, it’s hard to understand.

I am tired of people telling me to take vitamins to feel better. I am tired of people telling me to avoid stress and “stay positive.” How do you actually avoid stress? Stress is amongst us. Stress is just a part of life. You can’t help it, no matter how aloof, and even numb you are. We all interact with others, and just that simple interaction can raise ‘stressful’ situations. Should I curl up in bed and hide? I refuse. It’s just not me. I want to live. I want to experience it all. The good, the bad, the stress, and the peace.

People tell me I should try this diet, or go to the gym, or try this herbal potion, or this magic recipe that is bound to cure me. Now, I haven’t actually asked for advice from the general public. I would think that my doctor would know better, so I usually turn to him. But my inability to keep up with people my age, my constant fatigue is sometimes (not always, to be fair), considered ‘boring’, ‘old’ and ‘lazy.’ The fatigue that MS patients suffer from is not your everyday fatigue. It is not how you feel after a sleepless night, or after a long flight from the States to Kuwait, or during the flu, or even from a major hangover. Maybe, it’s all of the above combined, along with a heavy, strained body. And it happens every single day, for no reason at all. It happens randomly, it happens at work, while you’re driving, while you’re out for lunch with a friend, or after you’ve just woken up. No amount of sleep or rest can relieve the fatigue. It’s just there, it’s a part of you – your shadow.

And here’s the thing. I don’t want to be lazy. I don’t want to be old, or boring, or miss out on that gathering, or that party, or be unable to stay awake. But it so happens that sometimes, I am that person. And not by choice. But I have learned to deal with it. I know that sometimes MS fatigue gives me slurred speech. I know that sometimes, I may appear drunk (when I really am far from it). And I just wish people would understand that there is nothing that I can do about it, and that they can’t either. There is no cure. There is nothing I can do in terms of my “lifestyle.” Except, ask for your understanding, and not your advice or sympathy, although I know that it is done out of good intentions. We hate watching those we love suffer. It’s not exactly easy, I know. But sometimes, just listening, just smiling, just saying that you “understand” is more than good enough. It’s genuine and I truly do appreciate it.

A dear friend, also a writer, has urged me to write. It is perhaps the best advice anyone could give me at this stage. And it looks like I’ll keep writing about my experience with MS. Writing eases the pain. It voices what I cannot say out loud. It urges me to share my vulnerabilities and my strengths without the fear of rejection. It’s up to you to choose to read and what you choose to do with the information I hope to provide. This is a lens into my world – and perhaps the world of many others who suffer from invisible illnesses, disabilities, or just pain, be it mental, emotional, or physical.

Everything and the Beholder

Why are most people so afraid of being nice, yet don’t hesitate to point out your flaws? I have met so many people over the last few years, and I can definitely say that they share one thing in common: they find flaws and magnify them. They attempt to find cracks and gaps. And that is the easiest thing to do when you, yourself, are extremely insecure. I have been called ugly, I have been called incompetent, stupid; I have been called horrible names in the past. Looking back, I can confidently say that the person who called me ugly was in fact in desperate need of plastic surgery (and I say this most objectively), the person who called me incompetent has mental health issues, the person who called me stupid was constantly called names by her mother, and so on.

There is an Arabic saying  that asserts that you only see people the way you see yourself –it is not similar to the saying ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ Rather, it states that ‘everything’ is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty, ugliness, competence, lies, games, kindness, and of course, the ability to give and receive love. In other words, people see things and others the way they perceive themselves. There’s always a lot of projecting going on.

I went through years believing that people were essentially created flawed, and as such, constantly looking for flaws in others. This would affirm some self-worth for them. But I might be changing my perspective. Perhaps people are mostly flawed, and they are capable of ‘naturally’ finding flaws in others. That’s the default setting. What’s really inspiring is when you come across people who go against that setting –people who see flaws as natural, as not worth magnifying, and who attempt to highlight the things we generally forget about ourselves: how smart you are, how beautiful (on the inside and on the outside), how you are in fact more than just alright. Those people are not afraid to call out your good qualities, they are not afraid of saying it as it is. Their self-worth is not based on disturbing and disrupting yours, as cliché as that sounds. They are truly capable of extending their radiance, without fearing that they might shine less when they do.

So I guess I can’t be a pessimist after all, if I can now sort of say: there’s still hope in genuine goodness of the soul.