Depth and words

I recently experimented with a release of a small prose-poetry book. It doesn’t really have a genre and I was approached by a local publisher (they only publish Arabic books), so I was hesitant and didn’t think the book would receive any attention. Forget the Words is not as close to my heart as On Love and Loss which is still selling rather well on Amazon.

But this is not the point of this post. The book managed to reach a few people’s hearts, on a very intimate level. Firstly, my mother read and understood it, and she was able to see that the book was fragmented because I believe in fragments and inconsistencies. My mother is not one to enjoy English books, which reminds me of Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” – in which she asserts that as long as her mother could enjoy her work, then this means she can reach a wider audience.

I received feedback from people I hadn’t  met, sending me messages, emails, letting me know that the book spoke to them, that they were able to connect. Some were previous students of mine, others were new, and then there were those who had simply heard of the book by word of mouth. I am overwhelmed with the amount of citations on Twitter and Instagram! I type in #forget_the_words and random pictures come up with quotes from my book! It is, needless to say, an exhilarating feeling.

When I wrote the book, I was simply angry with words, with life, and I hurled the book at the world. I didn’t care for its success. I haven’t even shared it with all of my colleagues, it is not academic, not scholarly, not what I would term creative fiction. One colleague though, and a beautiful friend of mine, Janet, took the time to read it and reflect upon it. I think that’s what really got me- she actually did reflect on it. She didn’t read the book because I wanted her to read it (at least that’s not what it felt like) and she was able to make the links, the connections. She told me that the words took her to another place, that she was immersed within the dialogue and the symbolism, the metaphors I used. And that’s precisely it, I just hadn’t realized it. Janet helped me put it into words, and I’ll just borrow her analysis here: I wanted those who read it to feel as though the dialogue wasn’t mine, that the Sun and the Moon represented much more, and that human connection and depth is all we could ever live for. I seek depth everywhere. I seek depth in conversations, in friendships and relationships. Like Anais Nin once wrote: “I must be a mermaid, I have no fears of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”

So the book has given me a chance to connect with people on a deeper level. I am grateful to whatever entity is in charge, the Universe, the publisher who took a risk publishing in English rather than Arabic, my friends who read the book, readers who I never met, and those who took the time to think about the words, when I so blatantly asked them to ‘forget the words.’

  

   

       

Love and Academia

Today someone reminded me of how difficult it was for me during my undergraduate days. My postgraduate days were extremely exhausting and very gloomy at times. There were many days where I thought of giving up on academia. There were times where I couldn’t hold a pen. And yet, despite the struggle, I managed. Today my papers fell out of my briefcase, everywhere, it was a total mess. And as a student of mine bent down to help me gather them, for that one moment, as I looked at her, I had a flashback of myself, as a student, struggling to carry my literature books and dragging myself to class. As we gathered the papers and I thanked her, my mind went back to the past.

It has been only two years since I got my PhD, October 2014. That day was a day where the clock stopped ticking, the viva seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t bring myself to see the end of the tunnel. But at 3 pm that certain October day, I was finally who I wanted to be, and where I wanted to be. I rememebr being in shock for a few days after. And when I came home, I was met with endless love and celebration. 

People look at me today and assume it was an easy journey. Some people tell me I am too young to be a professor. Some tell me that I wasted years amongst books. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was never about the degree. It was simply about love. 

   
     

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!

   
 

Distance and Voices

I walked through the aisle at the Sultan Center today, trying to find the usual groceries we used to buy. My purchases have changed. My needs have altered. My hand reached for the canned mushrooms, and I heard your voice complaining about freshness.

“Don’t forget your vegetables. Get them fresh. No, no, that one – this one looks a bit discolored.” There. That was definitely your voice speaking to me. Clearly, that was your agitated tone, and the apologetic smile.

Hands fumbled as I examined the greens.

Then someone smiled at me. I wondered what you’d say.

The stranger smiled, and walked away. I thought about your smile. You had smiled endlessly, countless days, and you had still walked away, left me barely standing on my own. I know that life is all about moments. I know that we are doomed, and I know that we make our own realities, and we make choices. Choices are all about constraints and chains. But then again, there are choices that liberate. There are choices that help us rise from the ashes.

Would you do it all over again?

I can’t answer that question, but I’ll ask you. And I know you can read between the lines – so are you still you?


The photo is from I Wrote This For You by Iain Thomas. 

 

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:

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.

Whispers

It was a very unfortunate day, the day that I realized you were not only out of reach, but you were moving the way ghosts do – we don’t see them, and can’t hear them. You were so used to being as light as air, to your silence echoing around you, that intense ringing in your ears. It could only be deafening to those who did not understand it. And that’s when it hit me: we spoke the same language. And you were a ghost I could see. I saw you so clearly, so forcefully that I wanted to borrow your magical hands to paint you on one of your canvases.

The colors would pour you, all over the white space, that white space that you craved. But those around you, they didn’t understand it. How could someone so strong be simultaneously fragile? You wanted freedom, you wanted power, and they tried to offer it to you, gold-plated with your name on it. They swore you wouldn’t need anything else, you would be safe, you would be secure, and there was nothing to be afraid of. Did they know that while you listened to the silence, you spoke to your demons? You whispered that you needed to stay…to stay yourself. It was slowly withering away, this sense of self, this you that you had been so sure of. There were fragments of your soul, pieces of yourself, memories of your body, left everywhere. It started when you were so young. Betrayal. The closest person to you, your safety net, kicked you out of her womb. And then came the savior, who reminded you that people fall out of love with you too. And it was nothing that you had done, it was not your fault. You realized that things fall apart, no matter how tightly you try to hold them together. You plunged deeper into your world, into depths that they could no longer reach. And yet they were all under the illusion that they built you a home.

But I saw beauty. It was a beauty I had not come across before and it demanded attention. It required a moment of silence – it seemed to have been buried a long time ago. Yet there was that flicker of life in your piercing eyes, and even my impenetrable soul stopped and looked at you – and I just knew. I heard the untold stories, the unspoken fears, and the confusion. And I refrained from touching your hand, afraid that I would touch air, and I would come back to a reality that reminded me of the impossibility of a union with a Ghost.