Hikma Talk

This October, for the first time ever, I gave a talk that was both personal and academic. I was asked to speak at an event in Kuwait, by a group called Hikma. Hikma talks are a bit similar to TED talks, and they are meant to be informative, personal, and raise important social issues. I was initially supposed to be discussing Shakespeare and how I teach his work in Kuwait. But, because I was recovering from an MS relapse, and I was using a cane, I had to tell the Hikma group a bit about my personal background, and why I was using the cane. Before I knew it, they asked me whether I would tell this story to the audience. I was very hesitant, and I was not sure if I wanted to tell strangers all about me. I didn’t want to sound like I was inspiring, motivational, or even successful. I didn’t want the talk to be all about “me, me, me.” So I hesitated. And I thought about it for days. I wondered if I had anything to say, and whether people actually cared to hear it. I decided to approach the topic both personally and academically, explaining my journey through academia and with Multiple Sclerosis.

I gave the talk, starting with “I am not here to inspire or motivate you.” I really didn’t want people to think this was a success story or a sob story. So I talked about how we all have choices in life, and I linked that to the study of literature and the humanities. We all have a choice, to be either a hero, villain or a victim. We make choices every day. I choose to be where I am today. I choose to get out of bed every morning. Bad circumstances happen. Life is random and there is no equation you can follow. There are no guarantees. Those who look for logic in a life that does not offer any answers still don’t have it figured out. There is no answer, and there is no one way of living, or one truth. We find this both in literary works and in life. The humanities and literature saved my life, and that is what I said during my talk. I wasn’t exaggerating. Literature gave me purpose and meaning. I was able to learn how to accept imperfections, flaws, and make sense of a world that was chaotic. I learned how to deal with myself, my body, my identity, and others. Any other. Any other that was “different” by society’s standards. In literature, “others” usually find a home. Literature gave me a psychological home, and through it, I was slowly able to accept loss, pain, chaos, and also attempt to help others find the same comfort. I spoke about my experience teaching literature to undergraduates, and how we always have lively discussions in class. Literature connects us across boundaries, borders, and time. We learn to speak without shame, and there is always an open dialogue.

The event was successful, and I was approached by many lovely people. Everyone thanked me for speaking so openly. One woman said she could relate, because she suffers from mental health issues. Another said that her sister also suffered from a disability and was ashamed of her body. I met so many wonderful people that night. And I felt as though I had finally managed to stand up in front of a huge audience and speak about what matters the most to me. I didn’t think I could do it. I was a nervous wreck before the talk, and I felt as though I wasn’t ready. But the truth is, as with everything great, sometimes you’ll feel like you can never be ready. And maybe it just takes that jump. You just jump. I had to. And as always, no regrets, no regrets.

The talk will be available on YouTube with Arabic subtitles. For now, this is a tiny clip of it and some photos. 


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. 

My New Book

My first poetry collection is now available on Amazon. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/Love-Loss-Shahd-Alshammari/dp/1631358901/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1433966269&sr=8-1&keywords=on+love+and+loss+shahd

I expect that copies will soon be available in Kuwait. I don’t claim to be a poet, or a writer. This is merely an experiment, as all things in life are. Trial and error. Let’s see how it goes!

A Definition of Academia

I have always known I wanted to teach. Teaching for me is not a job. It is a lifestyle. It is a commitment, a relationship that provides security, love, and support. When I teach, I give and receive knowledge, and knowledge, for me at least, translates into love. There is an endless pursuit of education, of eye-openers, of moments where something finally clicks. And then you start all over again. A new batch of students. A new course. A new approach. And with each fresh start, the passion is reignited, and we get back into the game. So here’s to a new semester.

Of course, teaching is never just about what degree you have. There are tons of academics who have neglected their basic role in the Humanities – reminding people how to be humane. The Humanities: all about respecting the other, wanting to learn from the other’s perspective, and being open to everything. It’s all about equality, it’s not a hierarchy, and I sometimes wish academics would admit that. It’s not about instilling inferiority complexes, it’s not about intimidation, and it’s not about power. Teaching, if anything, is all about modesty. It’s about being able to excel at maintaining a balance between lecturing and listening, dictating and receiving.  For me, mostly, it’s about human interaction.

Only a few teachers and academics have helped me view teaching as an art. Those remained with me forever, and I continue to ask myself how they would do it so naturally. Sometimes, when I am stuck with a particular theory, or a new course I am afraid to approach, I ask myself, how would Dr. Muzaffar or Dr. Al-Nakib handle it? I constantly shift between being a student and an academic, re-adjusting my mindset accordingly. Dr. Muzaffar taught me how to be a critical thinker, open to receiving criticism from others, and accepting that it’s okay when you really don’t know what you’re doing. And, as an undergraduate who struggled with an invisible disability, Dr. Al-Nakib urged me to keep fighting, to rely on myself, and she accommodated my disability – which, at the time, I only revealed to her.

Academia for me is about a desire to stay alive and functional. It almost got taken away from me, at a very young age. Perhaps that is why I hold on to it. I find value in education and in literature. I start teaching a new group of undergraduates soon, and as always, I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

And that’s all for now.

Medical Humanities Conference


I recently visited Scotland for a conference held at the University of Aberdeen. The conference was entitled ‘Global Medical Humanities.’ I had never really given much thought to the field. Medical Humanities is an interdisciplinary field, combining medicine with literature, psychology, ethics, theology studies, history, etc. I was urged to submit a paper to the conference -my wonderful supervisor insisted that I had something to add, that I had something to say, and that it was worth listening to. I wrote an abstract and was surprised to find that it was accepted. Then the process of actually writing the paper was daunting. I had barely managed to write an abstract. How would I approach the subject that I claimed I could illuminate, when I could barely acknowledge it amongst family and friends? I chose to write about my experience with Multiple Sclerosis, and pose a theoretical framework for an understanding of a ‘hybridized’ disease, if you will. I examined my identity as a woman afflicted by the MonSter- and what that really meant in my culture.

I avoided writing the paper for as long as possible. I piled books of Disability Studies on my desk, but refused to open one. When I finally did write the paper, I was hesitant about going through with it and attending the conference. So I let my sister read it, and I could tell she loved it. She told me that it was great, and I should believe in my voice. Later, I finally mustered the courage to read it out loud to the one person who has been there for me for the past decade, throughout my struggle with MS – my best friend. She listened as I read, and I saw her green eyes glistening with tears. I knew I had managed to say something.

My panel consisted of three others presenters, and amongst them was my supervisor. The panel was called ‘Illness Narratives.’ Finally, I was able to label the type of work I was interested and invested in. After my supervisor gave her paper, it was my turn. I am still wary of speaking in public, although I teach, and I stand in front of haughty students. I still get extremely nervous, and I panic, and sweat, and my voice shakes, and I am suddenly very aware of my surroundings. In general, I have very little to say. I don’t necessarily avoid speaking, but I don’t have the need to voice my thoughts. This poses a problem at times, but that’s another topic altogether.

The paper was well-received. I managed to get more comfortable as I got through the introduction and I found that people were not only listening, but also, they were actively listening, taking notes, and smiling. I was met with a round of applause at the very end, and smiling faces of professors and academics who were touched by my ability to share the personal with the theoretical. One professor thanked me for that, and urged me to continue writing. My supervisor leaned over and told me that the paper was publishable, and that it was a “great paper.”

I was beyond ecstatic. I was finally able to speak, and I had, it seemed, spoken well. Image