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!

   
 

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!

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:

Learning to Breathe

I have been silent for awhile. Or perhaps silenced? Either way, I always urge myself, and I will persuade you, to speak up. And if you already do speak up, then raise your voice. One way to raise our voices, is to talk about the manifestations of Multiple Sclerosis in an Arab culture, which continues to relate illness to shame, disability to lack, and strives for perfection in all aspects of life. We are so obsessed with this illusion of perfection, having the perfect job, perfect partner, perfect family, that we sometimes repress our own voices, our desires, and our priorities.

As I have been living with Multiple Sclerosis since I was sixteen, I have grown up with it. It has, somehow, become a part of me. A part of who I am, what I believe in, and what I fight for. And this is a very positive approach- in case you’re thinking “how unfortunate.” It has shed light upon the important things in life. What really matters? And who really matters. Cliché much? We can learn a lot from clichés. But that’s a different story altogether.

A while back, my new medication left me dealing with unusual side effects and problems that previously did not exist. Yet I ignored them, denied them, and continued plowing through. I was on top of the world, exercising vigorously, traveling, and living as MS-free and trouble-free as possible. In return, I also grew detached from reality- that MS, always, finds a way to creep back into my life and remind me of its existence, of its demands, and how we both need to live and work together. Together, rather than against each other. We need to listen to each other. I need to listen to my body’s demands, and my body needs to listen to my emotional needs.

Denial, and shame, both work together to silence us, to repress our needs, desires, and fears. We deny pain. We deny ourselves the right to scream. The right to ask for what we need, who we love, what we dislike, who we are. Shame supports all sorts of repression and encourages us to remain in hiding, remain silenced. We fear bothering others, making them uncomfortable in any way. Illness becomes awkward. Shameful. Bothersome not only for us, but also for those around us- as if it wasn’t already difficult to deal with one’s self, we end up trying to put others at ease, to  make up for the conceived lack we feel. This applies not only to MS, but to any physical or emotional lack, real or imagined, that we feel we need to deny, just to feel accepted and loved.

Finally, after months of denial, and after months of feeling out of breath, I began literally gasping for air. I was not breathing anymore, my oxygen levels had dropped, and my body was screaming in protest. It demanded that I ask for more. It demanded that I take care of myself more, love myself more, ask for my needs to be met, and ask for the oxygen I need. Of course, as always, I relate the body to the mind, the conscious to the unconscious, and I find symbolism and meaning everywhere I look. Oxygen, which we all know is so vital for life, overlooked as merely a chemical element, was suddenly a lot more than that. What did life mean to me? What was my personalized version of Oxygen? Was it family, health, love, friends, academia, and/or my dogs?

My priorities had to be adjusted. Denial and Shame had to be killed off, in order to make room for Oxygen to take center stage. Slowly, I began formulating new understandings of what Oxygen stood for, of happiness, love, friendship, and most importantly, acceptance. Acceptance in all of its forms. I’m still working on finding my emotional and mental Oxygen, as I regain the physical component. So I urge you to really think about yours. Your Oxygen levels matter. Your needs matter. If you haven’t found your Oxygen, start looking, start asking for it. Your voice matters. And you matter. At least I think so.

25 Going on 15

 

Yes, that’s correct. I am twenty-five, by rule of legal documentation and according to my mother. But I do feel, and my doctor seems to think, that I have regressed. I am aging backwards. How’d that happen? Not before I was diagnosed at the age of sixteen, with Multiple Sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis is a neurological, often disabling condition which affects young adults and seniors. Very rarely are children, or teenagers, diagnosed. In my case, it was an early diagnosis which affected both my private and my public life.

I won’t go into the boring, tedious details of what it means to have MS, the agonizing symptoms, the unpredictability of the course of the disease and its many manifestations. My reaction to the diagnosis was specifically the following: I shrugged my shoulders. Perhaps it was a lack of knowledge. Perhaps it was denial. Or, maybe I was a heroic figure who believed I could take on the world. What was a little bump along the way going to do to my self-image? A few years later, the bump, the obstacle, the annoying rock in my path, grew, and began to make sure I tripped over it at every corner. Literally. I was eighteen years old when I fell flat on my face, right in front of the gates of the American University of Kuwait, where I had decided to apply. How humiliating, right? It’s bad enough when we do fall down. But it wasn’t as simple as that. A professor saw the incident and harassed me with questions and insisted that she file a report. I responded as politely and as neutrally as I possibly could. Finally, I informed her that I was only an applicant, and I had MS. She looked at me, baffled, and asked if she should call an ambulance. I replied with a “Please just let it go.”

That was my first initiation into the public realm of MS. People hardly ever understood. I’d walk into pharmacies, for example to grab so and so medication and would ask if it was bad for MSers. Pharmacists would ogle me and say: “You don’t have MS. That’s for old people.” A friend’s parent once reprimanded me for claiming I was afflicted by the disease, saying it wasn’t nice to lie about such things. At the age of 18, I understood that sometimes, almost always, people did not understand, and I would have to be the one to “just let it go.”

So the years went by, every day was an interesting experience, to say the very least. I learned that having all my senses was a real blessing. I learned to check for the functionality of all my senses the minute I opened my eyes in the morning. I learned to live for today, as cheesy as that sounds, and to shrug my shoulders at the future’s long threatening speech, that very same speech that my neurologist and doctors insisted on replaying: I would never have a “normal” life, because MS steals everything normal from you. No more normal days, no more normal lifestyle.

At twenty-three, I went for an experimental treatment that involved stem cells. The operation, or as I like to call it, “procedure” was a nightmare. A friend laughs heartedly every time I refer to it as a procedure, for it was anything but a simple procedure. It was agonizing, torturous, and did not proceed without killing me. Literally. And I was resurrected, brought back to life, after moments of “seeing the light.” That’s the positive way of putting it. I was reborn. But, like every rebirth, I had to die first. My body, my nerves, my eyesight, my limbs, everything stopped functioning. I sound brave as I relate the events. I was a child, calling out for my mother, begging the doctors to stop. And I am not one to cry, and certainly not one to beg. They did ignore me though, and continued to torture me (of course in my humble view it was torture) until my system reset itself. Or so they claim. I was skeptical, and perhaps still am a bit skeptical.

Today, two years later, I am not “better” nor am I “cured.” I am a teenager all over again. I am hormonal. I am developing acne again. I am angry, I am happy, and I am most definitely moody. I won’t go into other hormonal changes as not to offend anyone, but I can tell you, I’m a teenager in every meaning of the word. Now, maybe my system did not reset itself, maybe I am not better, but I am younger. Physically, not mentally or emotionally- thank the Lord for that — although my mother and sisters would argue that. I could be regressing mentally and emotionally too – but I should hope not, as I would like to be taken seriously. We never take teenagers too seriously, do we?

I can tell you that I am now a changed person. I can see past the obsession and preoccupation most people have with the future and “getting it all right.” I don’t want to get it all, I would just like for it to be “alright.”  Most people I meet are constantly running after something, running away from something, or simply running directionless. It’s the age of running.  Rarely do people stop. To take a breath. To reflect. To ask the inevitable question: What if I can’t run anymore?

I was told that no matter how fast I ran, that no matter how hard I tried, I would eventually fall. So how do you cope with that? I take every day as it is, one step at a time (or sometimes two steps at a time, to beat MS) and I have learned to shrug my shoulders, not helplessly, but to simplify it all. My mother taught me, that in the face of all troubles, in the face of all adversaries, of all disasters, to “simplify things”. Make them smaller. So I continue to simplify and make smaller. Hopefully I don’t shrink to a pocket-size version of me.