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!

   
 

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:

Winterson

One of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson, has a seductive way with words. Her words have a dizzying effect, and at the same time, make all the sense in the world. She’s an expert on love and describing love:

‘I fell in love once, if love be that cruelty which takes us straight to the gates of Paradise only to remind us they are closed forever.’ Jeanette Winterson.

“How is it that one day life is orderly and you are content, a little cynical perhaps but on the whole just so, and then without warning you find the solid floor is a trapdor and you are now in another place whose geography is uncertain and whose customs are strange? Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel to cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparaton. We who are fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere beween the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere beween fear and sex. Somewere beween God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back worse.”
― Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

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.

Breaking Up With My Right-Hand

I am currently in the process of breaking up with my right hand.

A few years ago, precisely six years ago, I lost function in my hands and fingers. I was an undergraduate at the time, a Literature major, and I was in desperate need of functional hands. How else would I write long essays? Our exams consisted of filling up empty pages with as much intellectual jargon as you could possibly manage. Of course there was also the Multiple Choice component, but that was manageable; it’s really easy to form a circle around a letter, even kindergarteners can do that. Messy circles, but hey, it’s no art class. I barely managed to take my exams, and I requested more time to write. My handwriting was barely readable – but then again, it hardly ever is. It was simply more deformed. Fortunately, my professors were understanding and did not acknowledge the sudden dysfunction that arose. I passed, with a flying (and flawed) blue pen in my hand.

Eventually, I regained function. Things went back to normal. Until a few days ago, when I realized my right hand had re-developed a tremor. Wonderful. Not only does it come at the most inappropriate time, but also, it is one of those tremors that medical terminology labels “Intention Tremor.” Simply put, this type of tremor is at its worst only when you want to use your hand; i.e. voluntary movement. When at rest, it is functional and as good as new. Ironic, no?

I depend on my right hand for nearly everything. My left is nearly non-existent. So, as always, I like to have a back-up plan.

I am currently in the process of training my left hand to become my right. Apparently, this can be done. I looked up the term, because as always, there is a word, which doesn’t adequately describe the complexity of this sudden dramatic intrusion. But enough whining. Here it is:

Ambidextrous. adj

1. equally expert with each hand
2. Informal highly skilled or adept
3. underhanded; deceitful
My favorite definition, is naturally, the third. To be deceitful. Who would I be deceiving?
First off, it seems that one needs to trick their brain, the subconscious, into thinking that the left hand is now the dominant one. I am wearing my watch on my right hand now, hoping that this will help fool my brain into re-adjusting itself. Also, I have to buy writing notebooks, the ones that second graders use to learn cursive. I should be practicing my writing. Also, I have to keep my right hand in my pocket at all times. Because it is no longer visible, I hope to deceive my brain into thinking it does not exist.
I am trying to break this cycle of dependency. This right hand of mine has all the power, and it’s time for us to breakup. This will require determination, because I am absolutely in love with my right hand. She’s the one who does everything for me – eats those juicy steaks, writes those long essays, types insanely quickly on my phone, makes my morning coffee – the list is endless.
But, she can no longer serve me the same. I have to move on. Let’s see if I’ll make it.

Heathcliff

‘May she wake in torment!’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’

Ink

There’s only one way to reach you

I attach syllables and letters,

Yet I stutter through my words

I tell you that I am articulate on paper

You ask me if people like that still exist,

In a time of sexual inflation,

When the spoken word beats the written word,

When sex forgets about foreplay,

When kisses become an inconvenience –

Yes, I still blush when you speak to me

I am flustered and dry-mouthed. I desperately need my ink.

I compose long messages and carefully penned paragraphs

I ask you a million and one Questions.

And I use that same ink to record your answers.

I keep a journal, so that I may carry you around in it, the folded pages embrace all you’ve told me, and the blank ones anticipate all you’ve yet to tell.

You’re wary, and afraid.

And I know we’ve both read more than we should, because there is such a thing as too ideal, as too delved in the world of words.

We lose track of the realm of possibility, of today.

So I pencil in our meeting date.

I wait to painstakingly inscribe my notes on your lips, on your hands, leave you stained with my ink.

And everyone knows how maddening it is to remove ink stains.

But I suspect you’ll want to keep me.