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Self-portrait by Quelqu'un

When I was a child, I was shy in front of people but was hyperactive at home. Many children are like this, though. I remember being in our car once, kicking the gear box repeatedly, and threatening to break it if my mother did not allow me sit on her lap in the front seat; along with my baby sister who was already on her lap. Apparently, it was something about her having a right to be there, being so young and all. The gear box eventually broke. However, outside the house, I could barely whisper words to strangers or my parents' friends. I think, for us, the fact that we didn't have any extended family around -because we lived as expatriates in Saudi Arabia - kept my sister and I from being totally open with other people. It has, however, always been interesting how we as children often found our own at home more than elsewhere.


As we grow older, the same children that we were can sometimes bring our adult selves back home. It is a classic situation many can relate to. I struggle with being too loud, sometimes: with certain issues, I can be very in-your-face in the most sincere yet non-conversational way. At such times, for me, it is nice to find home by imagining my kid self taking a break, for instance, from some high-powered ride. Other times, I give myself a break from, gratefully being a self, a daughter, a sister, a person on the street. I can then see these things a little anew. I can be less over analytic and worried about things not in my control. It's nice to try to catch my breath in a kid-like flushed-cheeks way, to then relax and reevaluate (everyone needs it); instead of perhaps being caught up in it all -like with me and a certain 1980's Toyota Cressida gear box, for instance.


Photo: 'View from my apartment in Abu Dhabi last year; around Fajr prayer time, 5:30ish a.m. People waiting for their bus to take them to work.'

View from my apartment in Abu Dhabi last year; around Fajr prayer time, 5:30ish a.m. People waiting for their bus to take them to work.

I actually realized this need for a break because of a few specific circumstances in my life which have helped me to calm down and think. One of these things is the fact that I have somewhat of low blood sugar which causes me to visit the emergency room for IV drips when I am on my period. Alhamdulillah, it occurs on a less regular basis now than it did in my teenage years when it would happen almost every month. I believe it is never as bad as it sounds; at least not when you can notice that others will always be going or will have already gone through worse. People are, thankfully, made flexible and can deal well, if they are mentally able and then choose to deal. This was and is a situation in my life which, in a difficult way, has allowed me to let go a little to think things through. Like so many people in the world right now, I chose to deal.


Most of us know what it's like to be sick in the bed with a flu, suddenly abstractly wanting to do good things for people. For me, this kind of feeling relates well with the Islamic practice of "living in the world as a stranger." Life is temporary and short; and a temporary life means that I cannot afford to always be totally sure about how I am acting or how I am living. Here temporality makes one need to live life better for themselves and others, to concretely want to do good things for people. The fact of a temporary world helps most of us, if not all, to reflect.


Apart from the health situation, I have developed a personal process to be more active in life. I am most transparent, or most available as a being, when I am inarticulate, when I stutter, when I am unsure- it lets me not be caught up and allows me to listen. I have a story to illustrate what I mean by this.


When I graduated from high school, I did not have a means to a university due to the limited educational opportunities for expatriates here in Saudi Arabia, where I was born and raised. I was basically trying to ride out an involuntary "gap" year in Saudi - a year between high school and college in which, usually, one works or spends some time exploring other interests.


In my case, it seemed like a well-acted out stay-at-home bumness. I wasn't working and I wasn't studying and I definitely wasn't getting married (something offhandedly expected here if nothing else is going on for the person). I didn't have much of a social life, either. Most of my friends had left for college or were still in school. But I'm a TV and tech geek, so this didn't bother me. I'm also somewhat of a loner-wannabe (which turns off many of my friends), so I actually liked doing my own thing. In addition, I was vicariously reliving senior year through my sister who was in her last year of school then; and I also spent six to seven hours a day on the internet participating in various online communities (read: chat rooms in which people found my humor a hoot).


In the beginning, one would probably see it as me turning into a heavy bellied man on a couch. But all this was ok, if I could only tell people what I planned to do the next year. I said I was going to major in either journalism or social work but I was never able to say where. It was a by-default revealing of a sad financial situation and, however much I became okay with it, it was not easy for others to see why a high school graduate would be calm about an unsure future. I starting thinking that it might be a good move to at least act a little uncomfortable about not knowing where I'd end up.


But, some time later, an instructive turn of events happened. One night, I went to a religion chat room online to ask if I could kill ants in my room which might harm me. We were moving out of our house, my bed had just been taken out, and I was sleeping on a mattress surrounded by a sea of ants which I couldn't get all out of the room alive. At the time, I just didn't see any other option. I, like anyone else, respect life so that is why I was freaking out about this.


Religion fascinates me in a quiet way. As soon as I was able to consciously think of these things, I have believed in one creator, one God. But, as soon as I was able to consciously be affected by my surroundings - media, society - I've also had a fear of anything "religious." So, when I went to the religion chat room, I definitely expected to meet with scary frowning emoticons and chat room welcome messages telling me to get out the "hell" out.


Instead, I met with a challenge to my presumptions. First, there were quite a few humoristic jabs at my inability to "yahoo" the issue i.e. my inability to search for the moral debate online. (I think in some savvy online communities, just randomly tossing a question in a room is equivalent to throwing your beaten-down sneakers at the sales person and asking him to do your shopping for you). Go ask the ants what to do, one person casually replied back. Others tried to figure it out for me but in no intruding sort of manner that I expected.


I think what intrigued me was that here were people just being people. They just happened to believe in a few things. They were quiet in this sense, but were certainly making a statement by being in a religion chat room. Someone going on and on about Islam or Agnosticism does not get people excited about learning stuff. One does get curious about things when an Atheist merely types about his day at work. Being private about one's belief while having a decisive moral character is un-usual.


Gradually, in the offline world, I started to read on my own. I had a lack of "real-life" social ties which let me deregister from norms and givens. So, wide-eyed and eager, I started to search out readings on life and humanity to figure out my existence.


It was a tense time to do this, though. It was 2001, the year when the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks had happened. The thought I found near to me and actively chose to practice, the thought of Islam, probably was (and media might show, unfortunately, still is) not the politically right thought to choose overtly for one's self.


I probably need to say this at this point: I denounce terrorist acts, as a Muslim and if this needs to be added, as a person, as well. In fact, Islam's stance against terrorism was very much a "duh" to me at the time of the attacks. I had just recently started seriously studying the religion in proper, scholarly method and I noticed how the arising misconceptions about Islam were becoming more and more characteristically misinformed. People, who happened to be Muslims, were being put down in a wild card attempt at owning authority over the situation. Considering the major actors involved, it definitely made sense politically. It didn't make sense, otherwise.


I did have moments of this-is-so-not-me because of what the word "religious" commercially implies. My choice was based on my initial instinct towards monotheism. Islamic monotheism, among other things, speaks to me about a responsibility towards humans as a responsibility to ourselves as living souls. But I was surrounded by people who did not see any other idea of the word "religious" than that relating to terrorists or self-righteous politicians. This made my choice feel anxious and heavy.


In a society of Muslims, I eventually became a stranger when my belief took an outward appearance in my attire i.e. when I chose the Islamic attire for women. I like being around people so I stumbled when I was pushed away like this.


But the Islamic idea of dress became important. In this world, a woman's being is often nothing if it is not decisively sexual. When I was 12, I remember earnestly praying to God that my chest wouldn't ever become as large as all the women on TV. I love being a female - it's the best thing that could have happened to me at birth - but there has been a mistake, such a big mistake because of which women are now first and foremost a media-owned idea of sexuality. Young girls do not understand the concept. Before they know it they are thrown into it, anyway. This is why, as a teenager, I gave into the opposing image with the short boyish haircuts and cargo pants. I fumbled for the power that came with being a guy who didn't need to be either discreetly or ostentatiously sexually attractive to the opposite gender, because I could then just be funny and "cool," instead. Men similarly battle to look aggressive and not-sensitive. So, predictably, I adopted a jock-complex that went with the boyishness.


So, in the Muslim attire, I found balance. It is an admirable yet difficult thing, nowadays, for someone to see no hints of a figure of a female body and still see a woman. This is pretty much what is required from people when seeing a woman wearing an abaya (a black, long dress of a kind worn over clothes) and a scarf.


I started buying skirts and flowery tops for myself. One can't really feel the need to be accepted by men, or by women for that matter, when there's nothing to be judged for. I could be "girly" or hip in private, and have an asexual ability to be anything I wanted in public. I preferred the suddenly private sensuality that only one other person, the man I would spend my life with, could ever be privy to. My body became my own and, then later in the mutual arrangement of a marriage, my future husband's.


But important to me was that I could, at the same time, still stand with those women and men who don't conform to an image. I became someone not able to afford financially, physically, or mentally to be that image; I became everyone whose low self-esteem levels could, let's face it, weigh worlds down.


I think what helped me was that I was old enough not to take personally the confused reactions of those around me on the basis of what I now wore. In social gatherings that my parents were invited to, the girls my age were not very receptive to someone who wore a scarf over her hair and an abaya worn over my pants and t-shirt. When I did get to start college at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), in the United Arab Emirates, I definitely wasn't any cooler to the larger crowd on campus. Some assumed I was probably unfashionably over-weight; that I probably had a dress sense that they wouldn't want to make friends with; or that I was just not as educated.


I was metaphorically stuttering by way of what I wore because of how others saw me. This is how what I wore became the perfect inarticulate factor. My way of dress became, in physical form, my personal strategy to pause when I was living without thought. I could see what it was like for the person who is not fitting a definite category and it helped me grow and be of a small amount of use because of it.


I graduated from AUS with a major in English Literature and a minor in International Studies. One of the most fulfilling things I've ever done. I've met the most strong and kind presences in the departments of that university - people who have, without knowing that they were doing it, helped me become more of the person I am trying to become, insha'Allah. Incidentally, these were also the same people who saw me despite my symbolic and (quite often!) literal stuttering in classrooms. But it is not surprising. Humans have the propensity to see despite a blind spot, or to see because of it. The following has is an interesting photo in that sense:


Photo: 'A shooting of a scene from Tom Tywker's short film "True." To see through not seeing: A blind student is supposed to be passing his hands a couple of inches in front of a girl's face. Photo copyrighted to Mathilde Bonnefoy.'

A shooting of a scene from Tom Tywker's short film "True." To see through not seeing: A blind student is supposed to be passing his hands a couple of inches in front of a girl's face. Photo copyrighted to Mathilde Bonnefoy.

I was careful about writing this portrait. I know that talking about a Muslim experience in this age can alienate or turn people off. I don't want that. (Who would, right?) However, I, like others, have had enough of easy ignorance and I am hoping that this will help in the way of getting me beyond it, as I get the chance to meet people, also.


As people say in this part of the world, Wa salaam 'alaykum - And Peace be unto you.