self perception


I have a every English sounding name and coupled with the whiteness of my skin, the blondness of my hair and Americanized accent I have always had a hard time asserting my Arabhood. This has been something that has plagued me since my childhood. I knew I was an Arab, and I knew I didn’t want to be mistook for an American, German, British, French…etc. person and having Sally as a name didn’t help. And so in my attempts at asserting my identity I have had a turbulent relationship with my name as it is the second thing people usually know about me after taking a look at me.

When I was younger I fantasized about changing my name to Salma. Why Salma? I am not a 100% sure. I think it might be that when I heard it I loved its ring? Maybe because it was connected to Abu Salma, a Palestinian poet who is also a relative and though I haven’t read his poetry (hangs head in shame), the name drew me. I love the name Salma so much that a few years ago I adopted a cat named Sally with a friend and it got so confusing that we named her Salma instead- and she took to the name beautifully.

But I didn’t change my name instead I consulted every dictionary and baby name book I could find and always looked up my name Sally to learn about it and understand it. I was only satisfied when I found out that my name has not only a Hebrew root, an Irish root, is used as a verb in English and has meaning in Arabic.

I was first clued to the Arabic meaning when people starting singing a Abdel Halim song to me in which he says “Walla Mana Sally yali Saletouni”. I’ve never really heard the full song but was so happy to hear my name in Arabic song and find the Arabic root to my name. And so my name comes from the Arabic word sala which means one of two things depending on context and derivation: To forget (something I do really well) and the other means to entertain (something I sometimes do well).

Today when someone comments on my name being an English name I am quick to add that it is an Arabic name too and has a beautifully appropriate meaning for my personality!

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I have hit rock bottom on numerous occasions. There was the professional funk, the financial insolvency, emotional turmoil, dead end relationships that resulted in a broken heart, and of course the dreaded depression. But the thing I have learned consistently and with ever bedrock I hit was that the only way is up.

No matter how hard you hit, for how long, whether this is hope or not, whenever I was at my worst something deep inside always said it just can’t get worse. And believing that and knowing it meant that things could only pick up and move forward and upwards.

I remember in 2003 when professionally, in one year I was fired, then resigned, then laid off, then out of work for the longest time. It seemed like my professional life came to a complete standstill, and slowly I was running out of what little savings I had. I went from interview to interview and the jobs I wanted either didn’t transpire or the jobs that wanted me were shoot me boring. So towards the end of the year I was penniless and without prospects of any financial security. But what happened was the spurred me on to become a freelancer. I was and still am a “Jane of all trades”, resourceful, with a good head on my shoulders. This meant that I could do anything I wanted to and it didn’t have to be in the framework of a 9-5 position. And so after hitting rock bottom, I thrived. I learned that I could aspire to be anything I wanted to be and have fun doing it! I became a story teller, a trainer, a proposal writer, a project coordinator; I learned all about cross cultural education and managed programs in informal learning. I’ve dabbled in community organizing, activism, volunteerism and I’ve thrived. The past six years have been so robust and alive and I’ve enjoyed the bigger chunk of them. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t challenging or trying, there were moments of extreme boredom and frustration. But that only meant I had to evaluate what it was I was doing and have the guts to change it. Getting the guts, taking the leap – well that’s another story for another time.

In 2005, I found myself facing a different set of challenges. Ones that were related to family and home. It’s a scary thing realizing that though we may be related by blood, our nearest are not our dearest. Learning to deal with that concept and evaluating a home built around misogyny, selfishness pitted directly against sacrifice, emotional guilt tricks, stunted growth and potential withheld by tradition, religion, and culture that transgressed into ones physical and emotional self. Suddenly waking up to all this and seeing it clearly left me more resentful than happy. I hit family rock bottom. So what did I do? I made changes that had very negative effects in the short term including a depression. That rock bottom was not bedrock! But four years after taking the steps to assert my needs, stop the guilt trips, put an end to the transgression, saying no to misogyny and taking responsibility for myself as an individual, my relationship with my family has improved dramatically. There is respect for my privacy, my needs, and myself. Its not always rosy and bright mind you, but we have all come to know our boundaries and limitations in the most positive of ways today. My relationship with my mother has never been better!

Oh but two years after that crazy family journey came the big whopper. In May 2007 I fell in love and subsequently got my heart trampled all over it. It was a secret love affair; some may even say it was one-sided. I won’t go into the heartbreak for it left me jaded, distrustful, and more a commitment phobe than before. But it did result in some beautiful things. I learned that I had the capacity to feel at a very deep level. I learned that I could let people in and share parts of my life without it leaving me feeling vulnerable and weak (including starting this blog). Towards the end it taught me how to regain myself after being lost in someone completely. And I am not as jaded or distrustful as I was back then. The commitment issues I am working on ;).

If I were to chart my life it would have a lot of dips and a lot of highs. But one thing that screams out at me when I look at this chart is that I climbed to the highest peaks after each dip; the deeper the pit, the higher the climb was. And so I have learned to succeed from my failures, and truly appreciate what it means to be accomplished. Today I am surrounded by my accomplishments and I am very proud of every abyss I fell through as much as I am every triumph of spirit and soul.

The other day my mother had a gathering. She invited her friends and sisters for some fun and entertainment. So the house was flooded by about 10 to 15 women. There was dancing, food, jokes and of course gossip and idle chit chat. Inevitably, at least one woman would come up to me and make that fateful comment. Talking to me about that dirty three letter word without saying it.

 

Throughout the years I have come across ever possible approach from these women. This includes the veiled compliments, the suggestions, the questions to the outright self important proclamations. They would be direct or indirect, they would be public or discreet, supportive or hostile… you name the approach and they’ve used it. The most common approach right now is marriage and how I should be focus on that and sure enough the comments about my figure would follow shortly.

 

That’s right you read correctly, they talk to me about being a bit FAT girl! Fat is a dirty word in our society, and by society I mean global society. It doesn’t matter where you hail from you need to be a size 4 or less. And what is worse here you have to have a skewed relationship with food. You make massive quantities of the most decadent dishes and deprive yourself of them. You have to be petite, tiny, slim-waisted and dainty so that you are an eligible young lady and prostitute yourself before these older women to find an eligible man and have a suitable life.

 

What is funny is none of these women have these figures they encourage me to have. These women do not have the life I want to lead, know nothing about me except from that sliver of interaction and yet they presumptuously think that I am unhappy in my skin! I wish it ends there too, at least there is a context in which these comments are made. I really don’t like it when strangers come up to me and tell me I have such a pretty face if only I would lose the weight, or a shop vendor or tailor makes that comment. And don’t you just love the people that try to push those magic weight loss products?! These people may think that they are doing me a service by telling me about my body and what is best for it. It’s as if they have a right to judge me solely by a number on a scale without knowing anything else about me.

 

I have been fat since I was a baby. To me being thin is being a size 14, I am tall, big, round, curvy and yes that dirty word we all try to avoid… FAT. And you know what I am not apologetic about it anymore, I don’t feel sorry for myself, I don’t think I need to change and when one of these women comes up to me today or a stranger comes on the street says something my responses are along these lines: who gave you the right to talk about my body, excuse and what do you know about me to make that comment or very proudly I love my curves and they love me and they go everywhere I go!

 

When I was growing up I never thought of myself as fat despite being so, I was athletic and active and never really felt heavy. Yet the world around me made me feel such, but as I grew older I came to understand my body and respect it and demand what I could of it by taking care of it. Being healthy to me is more important that the number on the label. I was also adamant, from childhood, about people respecting me for my intellect, my personality and not my looks.

 

But it still took me a long time to come to terms with that dirty word and use it: fat. Fat is not acceptable to our world today, but fat I am and like I said to that woman and I will repeat it as often as necessary, I love my body, I love curves and I love my fat! If you have problem with fat then please take it elsewhere because this big fat girl loves herself enough to say enough.

One of my favorite reads in the past few years is Amin Maalouf’s book On Identity entitled: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. The book discusses how our identity is made up of multiple facets and “it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime.” The book was a response to 9/11 and was trying to answer how murderous identities are born. But I won’t go into that now, you can read the book if want to learn more. But the question begs itself, Who am I?

The idea that we relate to many identities and react to the various criticisms or praises to a part of our identity and it comes to the forefront was fascinating and understandable. It made sense that when a part of you is under attack, misrepresented, misinterpreted then you want to change that and you react or act. But I’ve never really took an in depth look into who I am from that sense. I always introduced myself within a context. Until now. So with out context and for the sake answer the question this is my Identity.

Two identities come to the forefront of my mind: I am an Arab, I am a woman. Both have been the strongest identifiers for me. The first comes from two places, assumptions people make about me, and pride. I am constantly told I look nothing like an Arab and so I am addressed as and treated as a foreigner in my own home. Here I constantly correct that assumption by asking “What does an Arab look like?” When someone speaks to me in English despite being spoken to in Arabic my response today is “Ana Ma fhimet, Ma ba7ki Englizy”. This translates into I am sorry I don’t understand, I don’t speak English. Yes I know this piece is in English and I’m always using English ,I will explain that in another post.

I am proud of being an Arab, I am proud of being Jordanian . This pride comes from constantly representing my culture, my heritage and explaining it to westerners. My first experience at being a cultural ambassador/ translator was a visit to America six years ago. The trip lasted about two months and it was such an eye opening experience. I never knew how Arab I was until I had to speak up about my country, my region, my language, my traditions, my society …etc. It is hard trying to break stereotypes and presenting a positive spin on years of negativity and misrepresentations. But it is so rewarding when you succeed in changing fear into understanding.

The other part of me is my womanhood. I love being a woman. I have struggled very hard in a man’s world to be. I grew up amongst three brothers, in a misogynistic home with gender stereotypes constantly being reinforced in the simplest of daily chores and activities. I worked in male dominated fields early on in my career, in which I had to be tough and masculine in my attitudes. I walked in streets where I am made conscious of my status as a female, made sexual with a look, a comment, and sometimes even a touch. My early conditioning was to accept apologetically this placement in life. To accept that men will always be superior. Ha ha ha… yeah right. They are more than welcome to think that, but I will not apologize for being a woman, and I am not inferior. And if anyone has a problem with that I am more than happy to set them straight! I love being a woman and I enjoy my mind, my body, myself.

There are other parts of my identity that I used to relate to strongly but not anymore. I think that I have grown enough that I no longer need to validate those parts of me by making them important and constantly wearing them on my sleeve. Not that I need to validate being an Arab woman. But I am secure enough to know that I don’t need to showcase all my facets. It also makes for interesting discoveries of oneself by others.

Today I delivere my first speech in two years at Toastmasters. I opted to do another icebreaker, a speech that introduces me to the club. Here it is…  

When I want to introduce myself I find it very hard to do so through the typical age, occupation, family and history approach. These are all things you can learn about me from a business card and an ID card. So I thought about what it is to know someone, to truly be introduced to them. That led me to close my eyes and look inwards. This is what I saw.
When I close my eyes I look at the world around me.
I see a world that has no conflict, hunger or poverty. I see no global warming and no pollution. I see a world so beautiful with many spectacular places to travel to and make friends in I see history, culture, art and music enriching our lives and accessible to all.

When I close my eyes I look at the work I want to do. 
I want to lead change, I want to be change. I want to work with people. I want to make a difference. I want to work with my hands and be engaged in my mind. I want to put smiles on people’s faces. I want to create. I want to serve. I want to teach. I want to be.

When I close my eyes I look at the people in my life.
I see so many faces, many have come and gone. Many are yet to come. Some are friends, some are foes. I see the children around me and as a friend once said they are the messages we send out in to the future. I see my elders before me with their wisdom and years to learn from as the oracles of the past. I see our differences and celebrate that for in our differences we are one.

When I close my eyes I desire a love to fulfill me.
I desire love in all its forms. A love that is pure like that between mother and child. A love that is undemanding like that between friends. A love that is energizing like that for life. A love that is consuming like that between lovers.

When I close my eyes I see my retirement.
A small hut set between trees with the surf a short walk away. The coconut trees casting a shade so lazy that you don’t want to get out of bed. A hut with windows looking out to sea. White linen curtains billowing in the breeze. A room full of books, a warm kitchen for all the good food, and an open living room that is always welcoming. Outside, a boat, moored on the shore for fishing. And when I don’t fish, I teach the children about language, about math, about life and laughter. And as the sun sets, I lay in my hammock strung up between two trees. And at night a fire on the shore to keep me warm my arms wrapped around my knees as I listen to the surf and look up to see a star filled sky.

When I open my eyes I see the world that I live in and strive to make it better place. I see the work that I do in development and education and it makes me believe that we do make a difference one person at a time. I see my life full of amazing people everywhere I look. And I see the love that surrounds me. As for my retirement I look forward to finding my little paradise and inviting you there.

But I want to ask you, what do you see when you close your eyes?

I am a selfish woman, sometimes even very selfish. This, I know, is a very strong statement. Strong because we, as a society, view selfishness as a very negative trait. We are taught at a very young age to share. As Arab women, we are taught at a very young age to be selfless, and place others constantly before us. There is a high value on the happiness of those around us, and as young girls we see and learn that a woman who sacrifices and puts her family, friends, and others in general before her is a virtuous, good woman. Selflessness is a highly prized virtue. Well I disagree, and I disagree strongly. I think being selfish is a good thing. 

I regard “I am a selfish woman” as a very positive affirmation of all my accomplishments and life achievements. I think it is completely and utterly OK to place a high value on the things you want, your desired achievements, and to go after them. One’s own priorities may not match those that are around them, but let me ask you this: when someone asks you to take their needs into consideration first, is this not selfishness on their part? I think it is. So why is it OK for us to come last then?

I used to be very selfless. I would place a much higher value on the happiness of others and their needs. This usually meant that I came out last if I even got a turn. I was a pleaser. If decisions were being made everyone’s contributions, needs, and or feelings were considered, by me, before mine. Sometimes, actually most times, this left me feeling frustrated, angry, or just disgruntled.

Today, I have put my foot down. I won’t do things I do not want to do. If our interests are at odds then I place a high value on my needs first and then consider the others. I am the most important person to me. Just as you are the most important person to yourself. Each one our universes revolves around us. I recognize that and for that I am called selfish. It is a tag I have no problem wearing, because I may not come out on top every time, but I sure as hell don’t come last every time either. 


Finally, I would like to say that putting myself first does not in any way mean that respect, consideration, or compassion for others is thrown out the window. It’s just that now the parameters of how my life and my decisions are made are different, and for that I am a very selfish woman J.

I’ve thought long and hard about this and I know that somehow if I were to be a man, I would be a premature ejaculator! You may ask why and here it is. It seems I’m always ahead of myself. Whenever I am in a car and we are about to stop I am quick to take my seat belt off. I am usually ready to get out of the car before its even come to a halt. Whenever I am in a cab, I am always ready with my cab fare well before our last turn. When I pack to travel, I am always a day early with my packing. When I am sending out Xmas cards (which I didn’t do this past year), I always send them a month in advance. I am always jumping the gun, so to speak, and doing things a bit too early. I always get excited about things and get them ready, set and done well before they are due. This all leads me to believe that had I been a man in a previous life I would definitely have been a premature ejaculator and so I am very very happy that I am a woman in this one!

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