Quarantine and my old Film: Chained (2010)

It’s no surprise that we are all in self-isolation and the world is in a state of distress. Kuwait has taken some pretty harsh measures to contain the COVID-19 Virus. I am very grateful and glad that we are trying to contain it.

Meanwhile, I ended up searching for memories, old stuff, work I’ve done that I had forgotten about. I found a short film that I had written and directed back in 2010. A whole decade ago. The film was a representation of disability and societal pressures and discrimination in Kuwait. It was screened at various universities and the Kuwait Cinema Club. We were all English majors at the time and had no budget, no real experience in film-making, and pretty much just wanted to do something together we all felt was needed. We wanted to start the conversation about disability, difference, race, sex, etc.

Looking back, I am able to see that my thinking has changed drastically. The film has many problematic issues and there’s a lot that Disability Studies has helped me figure out. I was dealing with internalized fear and hatred of my own disability and that, I feel, is projected on the main character.

The film (Chained) has English Subtitles and is around 23 minutes. I am linking it here:

From Text to Trial

Borders and barriers. Boundaries and breakthroughs. Here she was, millions of miles (or maybe more, I was never good with numbers), away from home. She had left her home, her family, and here was in some Arab country. They looked at her like she didn’t belong with us. There we were, the others, the ones who had been colonized, captured, the ones who were called uncivilized throughout history and literature. There we were looking at her as though she was here to ridicule us, to judge us, to mock our traditions and culture. I heard some of the girls speaking in a language they knew she would never understand.

Her blonde hair stood out amidst the dark black haired girls, the brunettes, and naturally around the women cloaked in black. A striking contrast, uncomfortable to many. The men looked at her, their eyes darted straight to her legs. Fashionable. Like all the others, she was informed that she had to change her dress code a bit, alter her attire, make herself look professional and modest. What did that mean? It didn’t matter. She only wanted to work. She wanted to teach. To teach these students a bit about history, a bit about psychology, a bit about education, that was the initial goal. And here she was, nearly a decade later, unable to understand how the tables had turned. As the years went by, she had grown accustomed to being alone. Around her, everyone was either married or dead. The married ones feared for their husbands, they couldn’t believe a woman as beautiful as her wouldn’t sway their men. An affair was bound to happen, they thought, and prevention measures had to be taken. I noticed the stares. I overheard the married men make their remarks. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything when he said she looked good. Or did he? Would he have said it to an Arab woman? An Arab man, hypocritical and biased in his understanding of women. She wasn’t Arab, she wasn’t Muslim, she wasn’t married, and he was merely complimenting her. Wait until someone says the same thing to his sister or his daughter, I thought to myself.

But women aren’t always nice to other women either. Women are supposed to love and support other women, or so I was told in my Women’s Studies classes. Sisterhood is political. Sisterhood is a must. Black feminist. White feminist. Arab feminist. Third world feminist. They fight the fight against patriarchy, injustice, and they make the world a better place for each other.

But that’s in theory. In practice, things change. Like the others, I was used to sticking with my group. I was always an outsider, and my friends were minority groups, and I was content with being on my own. When I first noticed her, I looked at her as though she came from a different planet altogether. She wasn’t completely foreign to me, but I was curious about her intentions. I had met way too many privileged white people. I had met an academic who asked me if I knew how to use Google. So I kept my distance, I smiled at her from time to time, and stuttered when I spoke to her. Words seemed to escape and run back to her, it was as though they had decided that the language was hers, that it was not mine to toy with, and they snuggled better between her lips. My tongue was as twisted as a freshman learning French for the first time. And yet she didn’t seem to notice my anxiety. But I did. Anxiety was never a friend of mine. I was the most relaxed person, and yet here I was unsure how to behave in the presence of someone very foreign to me. There was an immediate meeting of souls and I was aware that language could not capture this transferable energy. She asked me for coffee, the first person to reach out to me. The others had never noticed my presence. I was the other, the Arab, the one who was different and invisible to them. They had formed a group, safe in the haven of the familiar, and inviting an alien out with them was not on the table. I began noticing that the world was divided even in the world of academia. Academia had different teams too. There were divisions and subdivisions. There was a cool table and a not-so-cool table. High school pseudo-politics had found yet another home. I wondered if people never change, and if adults are just meaner versions of children.

And yet here was a meeting of minds, an affair of cultures and a mingling of histories. I asked her how racist her great grandparents had been, and she laughed at the insinuation. They had, of course, been very racist, and very loyal to their people. My grandparents were the same in their xenophobia. As we began probing each other’s minds, I grew more fascinated with her ability to be so free of bias, prejudice, and racism. When I had previously felt like I was the object of an unpublished paper, I was now slowly being re-introduced to the ABCs of human connection. All of the isms went out the door: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism. We had nothing in common, I was of a different race, a different age, sexuality, ability/disability, and yet, surprise surprise – it had worked. It was a surprise to my friends and her friends, my colleagues and hers, and perhaps even more so, it was a creation of an alternative world. This was a place I wanted to be. There were words left unsaid, museums of minds left untrodden, dreams dangling between continents.

And so we collaborated. We researched, we analyzed, we found old textbooks that looked at societies, we tried to make sense of worlds of emotional war, we tried to break it down. What were they so afraid of? What was power all about? Was it a Western concept? Was it the East’s obsession with tradition, that tradition had to be upheld in the face of globalization? Was the West inherently racist? Was it white supremacy? What about Arab supremacy? What about lineage?

What was the tension in the air when we went for lunch with our colleagues? Bodies adjusted and re-adjusted, words cleansed and censored, ideas drafted endlessly, and none of us offered each other anything more than small talk. We didn’t like small talk. We couldn’t do small talk. She was a bit ahead of me in the Adult game, she knew human behavior more than I did and had been exposed to nonsense countless times. In a sense, she had become an Expert at man-made borders. When I was uncomfortable with the others, she reassured me that there was still someone who saw me for me, and as cliché as that sounds, I was grateful. Gratefulness is a word that seems to have lost its allure.

They invited me for Thanksgiving, and weren’t sure if I would join. Muslims don’t do Thanksgiving. But I could think of a few things I was thankful for. My people wondered why I would join a bunch of Thanks-givers.

She and I though, we crossed over to the other side. If I had hesitated, she had swam over to the deep end. But that’s who she was. She wasn’t afraid of depth, like Anais Nin once said, and she had a “great fear of shallow living.”

At the Airport, they separated us. GCC Nationals over here, all others over there. Stand in line, Don’t break the rule. See that red line on the floor? What, are you blind? I said, stick to your side.

Once we got to our destination, Airport security asked me to remove my shoes. The tall white man smiled at her approvingly, giving her the green light to keep moving. Walk on.

Book Discussion Event

Last night, January 16th, 2017 was a beautiful night, at least in my journey. I was invited for a book discussion with a wonderful group, ‘Book Therapy Kuwait.’ They also invited two other groups/associations, ‘The Divan’ and ‘Kuwait Poets Society.’ I am still speechless and unable to find the words to describe the vibrant energy and creativity that exploded yesterday! I will simply post the videos to speak for themselves. After the book discussion, Kuwait Poets Society had three of their brilliant members perform/read their poetry in response to my book Forget the Words. I was left awe-struck and my jaw dropped at the way they were able to react to the work, the way they reshaped it, re-envisioned it, and produced their own poetic contributions. The three women poets each responded in a different way, each her own twist, and yet, they all chose words/lines from my work that resonated with them. It was mind-blowing, to say the least.

Nada Faris is a published writer and for copyright issues I won’t be posting her rendition of the work, but her work is accessible on http://www.nadafaris.com. Nada is a performance poet and an avid writer. She had the entire audience awe-struck once she finished reading her poem. I was not surprised with Nada’s creativity and ease with words! I have followed her work closely throughout the years and respect her professionalism and loyalty to poetry and its various outputs.

Farah Al-Wugayan, “xxmantras” on social media, is also in the process of publishing her own book. Farah wrote and shared two poems. She responded to “Presence” and “Belong.”  Farah was brilliant in her ability to feel EXACTLY what I was struggling to express, this idea of belonging/not belonging. I sat there, completely mesmerized. As always, her work is magical and heartfelt, pouring poetic jouissance into her audience.

Rawa Majdi, the founder of Kuwait Poets Society, one of the most productive and supportive women I met, also was on stage. She wrote a heartbreaking poem, a response to “A Room Without Light.” I will post both of her readings, of my work, and then her own depiction of the text. Rawa was able to have us all transfixed on her interpretation of the words. As she spoke, I felt pieces of my heart break, and I was moved by her choice of words, her ability to allude to the “madness” in love.

 

All in all, there was so much soul, poetry, and magic that night. That is the beauty of words, of language, of connection. Yesterday we were all brought together because of the love for writing, the love for words, and the endless support we have for each other. Strangers, friends, colleagues, students of mine, poets, readers – everyone was radiating. Blessed. Here’s to a wonderful start to 2017!

Below: Farah ​​

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​​below: Nada Faris 

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Last two videos: Rawa ​​

Finally a quick glimpse from the discussion

On this “Self” 

In a society that continues to dictate to us how to live our lives, what to wear, how to be a “good” wife/mother/daughter, how to be an ideal woman, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of identity, without being swayed and confused by excessive demands. I grew up in an environment that attempted to control, regulate, and tell me how to be “me.”  It was difficult in a mixed American school, where kids tried to blend, mixing a Kuwaiti culture with American ideals and identities. To be considered “cool” was not easy, and to be branded “cool” did not mean that you were to stay “cool” forever, you had to please the majority, follow a certain code of conduct (or misconduct), and of course, the social class you were born in set the stage for all the rest of the demands. 

Even today, it remains difficult to remain true to who you really are. I know so many people who have lost themselves, and to try and recover yourself is the hardest thing you have to do. You may end up in a relationship where you cannot remember who you were before that person, you may end up working at a job where you change your work ethics, or you may end up trying to please the Beast. The Beast comes in all forms: parent, partner, boss, colleague, an illness, age, anything at all that threatens your sense of well-being, your inner peace. To maintain this “self” is important but we also need to know what exactly is this “self” in question. 

At times, I get overwhelmed with it all. I get comments that confuse me sometimes, for example,  I am told that I have perpetually sleepy/tired eyes. Sometimes it gives off a lazy impression, when it is simply a neurological imbalance. It can be frustrating to say the least. I said this a few days ago to my mother, a woman who has taught me to accept the physical body as lacking, to accept society as constantly critical, and to accept myself as an evolving being, but mainly, she taught me that there are no losses in life that should kill me- except, the loss of self. And the biggest struggle, the struggle of fighting to maintain that self, that is the cause. That is the cause- if we talk about feminism, if we talk about disability rights, identity studies, healthy relationships and boundaries, all of it- it’s the same cause. To remain you, at the end of the day. 

This is a random conversation this morning, her reminding me of what it means to embrace myself, even at the age of thirty, one can never do without Mom’s unconditional love and wisdom.   

  
Now, naturally, the curls are just a metaphor in this post, but as a child it was a pressing issue! 

And that’s all for now. 

Abdulrahman Mohammed sings mostly old Arabic poetry. This one has subtitles in English, too.

Not everyone can appreciate his work. You have to be familiar with the old Arabic poetry, read the poetry itself, compare it to his adaptation, and then enjoy his stunning voice. This is my favorite part, and perhaps it comes as no surprise:

البدر يكمل كل شهرة مرة
وهلال وجهك كل يوم كامل
أنا أرضى فيغضب قاتلي
فتعجبوا يرضى القتيل
وليس يرضى القاتل

Roughly translated: “The full moon appears once every month, but your face, beautiful as the crescent mood, appears every day. People wonder, how can the murdered be pleased, while the murderer isn’t?” (In this case, the speaker is the murdered)..

Experiment

The past few days have been unusually difficult. Getting out of bed, making it through another day has been sort of a hassle. I don’t mean to dwell on this. But, the point of the post, I was asked to speak about what it feels to love, and to be in love, and to be confined at the same time. To be stuck. To be stuck in a body. To be stuck in space. To be disconnected. This was a very experimental type of performance, no real style, and the audience was very open and receptive. I worked with a wonderful Yoga instructor and dancer, and she felt that the words resonated within her. I did it for fun, mostly. And I chose the words that were mainly about you.

Sometimes, I think the words bring us closer. Sometimes, I think the words can reach you. Do you still believe? I want to know.

   

 
 

Questions

I always ask way too many questions. Funny, I hardly ever receive answers. Or, in other words, I don’t get satisfying answers. My request is always for more clarification. Perhaps it’s the professor in me. Clarify, elaborate, explain. I don’t want to make assumptions, and I am afraid that my assumptions are mostly inaccurate. I have learned that bravery is to ask for clarification. I draw in my breath, draw my sword, and ask you for more.

To want more is to be greedy, in a sense. It is hard to satisfy my hunger for you. I have survived on crumbs for too long. If I can preserve you, freeze you, keep you safe away from the inevitable pains of life, would that make me possessive? Obsessive, irrational? It is one thing for me to be in pain, but to watch you hurting is a horrible place to be. I stand helpless, watching you, unable to change events, to change the outcome, and to shelter you from the storm. I still think I have access to the skies, and that all it takes is a fight. I still have a fight in me. To fight for a better world for us, a safer life for you, one that doesn’t continue to separate us. Have I finally gone mad? I was a thief, your thief,  you said. To steal your heart, to steal a part of your soul, that makes me a soul thief. I doubt that you know how many times you have asked me, silently, to steal your entire soul.

Choice

There are two moons surrounding me, one on each side. Right and left. One of them tells me I should be grateful, be blessed, that I am still one of the stars in the sky. The other moon tells me that I should want more, that I shouldn’t settle for being one star in the sky. I want to be your sky, nothing less will do, nothing less will suffice. Caught between two roads, two paths, fearing losing you, and yet, also, the fear of never knowing, of not trying. This is my tenth attempt.

You have a dizzying effect, and a scent that is a mixture of Oud and French scents. There is a danger in that I cannot hold you, cannot stock up on you, cannot carry you in my pocket, spray you liberally whenever I need to. What is the danger? Am I exaggerating? The danger is of loss, of losing the possibility of you. Can you tell the two moons I would rather you choose the road for me? I have failed to light up your path or mine. I shrug my shoulders, in defeat.

But then you say Hello and I get a glimpse of what could be, of what was lost, and how there are things that are better left unsaid, unexplained, and that I cannot write. I cannot write you. I give up.

Music and Soul

I was invited to Abdulrahman Mohammed’s concert, and as I have always been a fan, I was very excited to see him live. He was spectacular. I am reminded by everything that his music takes me back to. I remember how his words used to make us cry. I remember how the poetics of it all barely captured the intensity of reality. He draws his inspiration and his lyrics from Old Arabic poetry, and he has included Qais’s (the poet) love for Laila. Qais, otherwise known as “Majnoon Laila.” In love, will anything other than madness suffice? I doubt it 🙂 Abdulrahman, like Qais, pours his soul into art. He left all of us completely awe-struck that night, and we left the stage reminiscing and wrapped in a blanket of passion, pain, and possibility. Some of his amazing words: 

قُولواْ لهّا أنني … لا زِلتُ أهواهّا

مَهمّا يطولَ النوىّ … لا أنسىّ ذِكراهَا

هيّ الَتي عَلمَتني … كيفَ اعشَقُها

هيّ الَتي سَقاتني … شَهدَ ريّاها

روحٌ مِن الله … سَوىّ لنا بَشراً

كَسىّ حُسناً … وّجمَلهّا وّحلاّهَا   
 

30

So when I turned thirty, it was supposed to be a big deal. You know, the big 30, you’ve left your roaring twenties behind, and are suddenly, supposedly an adult. No longer “young adult” but actually an adult. But I have always felt like an adult, always behaved like one, even when I was only five, explaining to my mother that we were friends, and she shouldn’t boss me around. Responsibility was pretty much part of my character at a very early age. But I digress.

I was very scared of turning 30. When I was eighteen, I thought I’d never make it to 30. Doctors told me that by the age of thirty, things would pretty much be over. But somehow, I made it to 30, semi-functional, and having learned a few lessons along the way. My friends celebrated my 30th, and I realized that having real friends was the greatest blessing. Friends who accept you for who you are, listen to you, hold you up, support you, and tell you when you’re being a douchebag. I was dealing with a loss that I still cannot understand, cannot seem to accept, because there is no sense in it. And yet, I have realized that sometimes you just lose, without explanations, without reasons. Life and loss are just so intertwined. You cannot control the equation, and you cannot control who stays and who leaves. You can only control your choices, how you deal, how you react, but nothing else.

So I wrote myself a letter, and as private as it is, I will share bits of it on this blog. Amongst the things I have learned are:

You cannot ever really prepare for the future. As daunting and scary as it sounds, you really just have to go with the flow. I always tried to plan things in advance, but it was just stressful and exhausting. Things usually surprise you, outcomes are always different.

You have learned to accept you, finally. You have met critical people, people who couldn’t love themselves, let alone love you, people who saw flaws more than anything. You have finally understood that negativity arises from deep within a person, and you can’t change that, no matter how hard you try. You can’t fix a broken person, you can’t love them hard enough to fix them, and you certainly aren’t a superhero. That’s okay.

When you look in the mirror today, you see fatigued eyes, no matter what you do. Your brain works harder than an average person’s, because with MS, the nerve signals are slowed down, and you have to work double as hard to do a simple task. Motor function is difficult, the brain has to adapt to “normal” functioning by trying harder. It can be draining, and yet, people can’t see it. People will make fun of you, they will criticize you, ask you why you look so sleepy and so dead, and there is never an answer you can provide. And that, too, is okay. Accept that people will not understand, and that’s not their fault, or yours. It just is.

There are those around you who have taught you what love is, and even if they are gone, you know that you learned a lot about life and love, trust, friendship, loyalty, and most importantly, human nature. You also learned to accept that when people walk out, it doesn’t mean you haven’t tried enough. You got to let go, and sometimes, you really just aren’t on the same page as the other person. We can be on the same planet, yet on entirely different wavelengths. Love is simply not enough, if respect is not in the equation. Respect, trust, and non-abuse is most important. Love only grows from that equation.

You are blessed that your mother is still alive, and is your best friend. You learned to cherish days that matter, because you never know when time is up. Because of MS, which people have seen as a curse, you are always living in the moment, cherishing it, savoring it, and enjoying being here, today, with your loved ones, able to see them, to touch them, to hear them, to speak with them. This is a beautiful part of life, to enjoy your loved ones’ companionship. People just let life slip by, and as cliché as it sounds, they don’t stop to think about these moments. They always think they have forever and another day to fix things. But if you don’t fix things today, if you don’t make it right, why are you so certain you’ll have tomorrow? I don’t understand this concept at all. It either is, or isn’t. Life is not meant to be put on hold, and neither is love, nor passion, nor doing the right thing.

So every time I feel down, I know I need to think about these things. I need to reconsider where life has taken me. I wish people could see things from a different perspective, that it really is all about today, that you cannot control the future, that security comes from loving yourself and being able to extend that love to those you WANT to love, those that you want to witness their life’s journey. I am still learning, but I know that I have at least solidified who I am by the age of 30. I look back at my eighteen year old self, and I think, you managed to become who you really wanted to be: an academic who struggles daily, but wouldn’t trade it for the world, a simple person who is grateful to be able to read, to drive, to enjoy the companionship of good people, and loves learning about this condition of being human and surviving it every day.