When I found out that I was accepted to attend a writing program in the United States at 16 years old, the first words my mother said to me were: “Don’t you dare tell anyone. Otherwise, it won’t work out.”
Carefully trained throughout my entire life to keep my lips sealed when it came to the good fortune that settled into my world, I listened and did not tell a soul. One day, I cracked and told my closest friend the news, and then made her swear she’d keep my secret. Barely five minutes after telling her, fear and regret began to settle into the pit of my stomach. I had done it. I had told someone. It was only a matter of time until the universe’s wrath invaded my world – until I would be punished for my act of great betrayal.
I did end up going to the writing program and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but my mother’s teachings continued to be haunting. Simultaneously, though, I knew her teachings made very little sense. In the same way I wasn’t allowed to share any good fortune, she was adamant that I absolutely could not share the bad: “don’t tell anyone about (insert either mildly or terribly horrific situation here) – otherwise, it’ll get even worse.”
“This silence, the careful hiding and stitching and sealing, is an act my mother takes very seriously. I think that for most of her life, she has believed that she needed to deal with everything on her own.”
Subconsciously, I placed every single thing that happened in my life across an imaginary two-dimensional spectrum, with the extremes at either end labelled “good” or “bad”. Everything that has ever happened to me exists somewhere on that spectrum, meaning almost anything could be good or bad; meaning I couldn’t share anything with anyone, meaning silence was the only way to protect myself from harm’s way. And I dealt with everything alone – an extremely isolating experience.
This silence, the careful hiding and stitching and sealing, is an act my mother takes very seriously. I think that for most of her life, she has believed that she needed to deal with everything on her own. I think her trust must have been wounded by those around her.
On a wider scale, this fear is also characteristic of most Arab communities. حسد (pronounced hasad), when directly translated into English, means envy, but there’s a heaviness that this English translation erases. A heaviness and divinity and ancestral energy to this envy that can hardly be put into words. In Arab communities across generations, you’re taught to hide or limit what you share with those around you because you never know who might hear and accidentally, or perhaps even intentionally, curse you.
“At these extremes, still haunted by the voices of these intergenerational teachings, I find myself succumbing to loneliness. Who can I share things with without suddenly cursing the curves of my existence?”
I certainly didn’t want to be cursed by those around me, so my lips were sealed. The basics of these teachings are simple, but they feel non-discriminatory. Absolute. To my mother, no one is out of the equation when it comes to harming you. In her generational teachings, she pushed me away from sharing the good and bad with almost everyone around me. Not my friends, not my relatives, not even my own family members. No one was to be trusted. Everyone can hurt me.
This past year, I have experienced the good and bad at their most extreme. I have had moments where I felt like I was the most abundant person in the world. Other times, I have felt like I had absolutely nothing at all. At these extremes, still haunted by the voices of these intergenerational teachings, I find myself succumbing to loneliness. Who can I share things with without suddenly cursing the curves of my existence? Who can I talk to? Where can I go?
“I’m trying to change the lens through which I look at my life now. I have been told that those around me possess more power than I do, that their mere awareness of my existence renders me deeply vulnerable to a downfall. But now I know that’s not really how life works at all.”
I recognise the faults in my mother’s teachings. I also consciously recognise that my mother too was a victim – she’s had experiences that have made her shroud her vulnerability with a thick wall of shame and fear. She too has been taught the very same thing. But in understanding and viewing my position in this generational cycle of mistrust, I try to step back and stand against it. I try to resist.
There are multiple faults to the teachings I have been raised with. The biggest dangers emerge in analyzing the power dynamics created by it; if sharing something with someone causes it to be ruined, you are automatically placing greater power in the hands of those around you. Simultaneously, you are diminishing yourself. Unconsciously, my mother has been raising me to believe that I am small, so small that the simple act of enunciating something can make my life fall apart.
I’m trying to change the lens through which I look at my life now. I have been told that those around me possess more power than I do, that their mere awareness of my existence renders me deeply vulnerable to a downfall. But now I know that’s not really how life works at all. Life is a blob of grey areas. Of good, bad, and mostly in-betweens. Every day, I practice looking inwards. I try to remind myself that my voice – the clear sound cascading slowly from the innermost part of my soul – is the most powerful part of me.
I extend parts of my soul with those I love. I teach myself to be open with those around me. I trust that I am protected by the skies. I form barriers between those who have hurt me, and I view that as another form of openness too. I trust myself in my openness. It sets me free.
Fatima Al Jarman is a writer from the United Arab Emirates trying to live her best life. She is also the founding editor-in-chief of Unootha, an online magazine dedicated to showcasing the creative work of Middle Eastern and North African women. @wtfa6ma
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