Speech, Bayan Bilingual School, September 16, 2014.
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How and When I Decided to Become an Anglowaiti Writer
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Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.
The Iraqi army occupied school buildings, which they turned into torture chambers and prisons. Resistance to Saddam’s occupation materialized in many forms, some of which were local. Kuwaitis who left the country managed to help from the outside.
On the day my family left Kuwait—my brothers and I tucked in the back seat of my father’s Chevy, my dad shaking behind the steering wheel, and my mother whispering prayers on a loop beside him—I said or did something that frustrated my father.
I was four years old.
My parents don’t remember what I said or did, but they recall that my father became so angry with me that he stopped next to the nearest Iraqi checkpoint to tell a soldier to take me away from him.
He wanted to be “unburdened.”
My mother begged my father to change his mind. Together, they managed to convince the Iraqi soldier to let me go.
For years, at gatherings, such as birthday and barbecue parties, they told the story of almost giving me up during the invasion. Apparently, they thought it was funny. My father’s punch line was, “Imagine if the soldier had actually taken her? Nada would now be an Iraqi.”
I’ve been plagued with certain questions ever since.
“How horrible was I that my father had to ask an enemy soldier to take me?”
“What had I done at four years old that made me so dispensable?”
“Am I ever going to be worthy of love?”
I’ve spent a long time trying to understand my parents, myself, and the complex world around me.
This is where literature comes in.
Kuwaiti society belittles literature because people view it as a frivolous occupation.
Poetry: only beautiful language.
Fiction: a mechanism to help escape the real world.
Drama: sheer entertainment. Nothing else.
Our society tells its youth to read and write in their spare time but not to make literature a way of life because for Kuwaitis, it’s a waste of time, lacking in importance. Society tells us that it’s better to be practical and to get a real job.
Far from being frivolous or just enjoyable or even beautiful, literature is both powerful and extremely important. There would be no civilization as we know it without literature.
To interpret notions of truth and justice, Plato, the godfather of Western philosophy, referred to the texts of the Greek poet Homer.
To conceptualize the human psyche, Freud, the godfather of psychoanalysis, referred to the texts of the Greek playwright Sophocles.
To challenge the dominant socioeconomic order, Marx, the godfather of the critique of capitalism, referred to the texts of the French playwright and novelist Balzac.
Literature and its elements matter in the Islamic tradition.
Muslims believe the Koran to be the only miracle given to Prophet Muhammad, who was illiterate. Despite his inability to read and write, Muslims believe that the prophet bequeathed a text rich with beauty and information. However, it is a text that requires interpretation.
Muslims can only understand the meanings of Koranic verses by interpreting the holy text, itself full of elements that belong to the field of literature, for instance, allegory, repetition, alliteration, allusion, and so on.
Literature and its elements are part and parcel of what makes us human.
Ask any scientist. He or she will tell you that our brains are storytelling machines, whether or not we are aware of this aspect.
We possess the cognitive ability to make sense of randomness, identify patterns in chaos, and then to communicate or share our discoveries with one another.
So when and why did I decide to dedicate my life to literature?
I was 17 years old.
Something had happened to me.
I considered giving up for good.
Then I realized that it was just as hard, messy, and deliberate to live as it was to die.
I decided then that I would acquire the language to finally be able to express my anguish. I would gain the proper knowledge to finally be able to answer, if not all, then at least some of the existential questions that had haunted my life.
When I tell you that literature saved my life, I am not being metaphorical.
I am dead serious.
Most of us should read.
I’ll come back to that shortly.
For now, let me also say that I wish only a few of you would decide to become writers.
I’ll explain that later as well.
(Suspenseful, I know).
Let’s return to that 17-year-old girl, kneeling on her bedroom floor, promising the universe that she would never let her parents, friends, or society dictate how she should live. Her every breath from then on would be devoted to the arts, the magnificent arena of human potential.
By then, I had had enough of rebellion, the tug of war with my mother, the sad impetus to make her see me—really see me—acknowledge my talents and existence, and love me as a fellow human being.
I decided then that I would be a writer, that I would spend the next 10 years working on my craft—the technical aspect of the language—and on my knowledge of the histories and theories of literary production.
I wrote poetry, plays, stories, and essays.
I wrote research papers and kept journals of my progress.
I wrote study guides and hosted study groups for friends.
I won poetry awards in college.
Fast forward to 2006, when I graduated from Kuwait University’s College of Arts. Its Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs offered me a job in her office.
In addition to full-time employment at Kuwait University’s College of Arts, I worked part-time as an English teacher at New Horizon at the age of 20, teaching men and women who were sometimes 10 to 20 years my senior.
I enrolled at Kuwait University’s Master’s Program of Comparative Literature in 2008 and started publishing a year later.
I entered my first slam poetry competition in 2010.
Slam poetry came to Kuwait via the Jamaican Embassy. Ayana Ashanti hosted Kuwait’s first contest. I did not know what a slam was at the time. The type of poetry that won awards at college was written in iambic pentameter.
I watched a few slams on YouTube.
I wrote my first two slam poems.
Performed them at the Jamaican Embassy.
Won first place.
I was the only female and the only Arab contestant.
When I was trying to understand what spoken-word/slam poetry was all about, I came across Andrea Gibson, an American female poet.
I fell in love with her.
I fell in love with her poetry.
Remember, this was in 2010.
In 2013, I represented Kuwait at the International Writing Program at Iowa University, USA, and I saw them* performing at the Iowa Women’s Music Festival.
(*Andrea identifies as a “them,” sometimes).
In addition to writing poetry, from 2010 to 2013, I also wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as short stories. I was honored as the top student in the Master’s Program of Comparative Literature. I played in Kuwait’s National Women’s football team, too.
(No. I was not among the group of women who lost 17–0 to Palestine).
Let me return to the two points I mentioned earlier:
Why I think it is important to encourage most people to read.
Why I think only a few of you should become writers.
1. Literature allows us to live more than once.
We all live one life. Literature expands this life by allowing us to experience other people’s thoughts or feelings vicariously by reading, hearing, or watching different literary productions. Even if it does nothing else, literature is important because it enriches our lives, expands our vision, and makes us smarter, kinder, and more aware of other people and their sufferings.
2. Literature transforms us.
Skeptics tell us that when we read, we are escaping reality. Tell them the second reason why literature is important—it transforms us. When we return to “the real world,” we do not remain unchanged. When we begin to interact again with people and things, we do so differently. Thus, literature is not autonomous, independent, or disconnected from the real world. Remember that the major texts in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and economics were written after such transformations.
3. Literature enhances our biological organs. It affects our social evolution.
Literature actually operates on a much larger scale than merely on an individual who reads books or encounters other forms of art. People commonly think of literature in abstract terms. They talk about messages and content, which is not wrong per se. I already stated that transcending our physical reality vicariously by experiencing the sufferings or happiness of literary characters enriches our own experiences. However, literature is more than just messages or themes. It comes to us in different mediums, making it material or physical. We read Shakespeare today on the iPad, and we also view his plays on YouTube. When we don’t understand a phrase, we browse Google for an explanation. Words, images, or sounds that make up literary messages and themes are bound in technology. Over the years, this technology has extended the capabilities of our human organs. Our hearing, sight, and speech are augmented, and as a human species, we develop new abilities over time.
When we talk about the importance of literature, we must also be aware of its relationship to the technology it brings and the ways in which this technology contributes to the evolution of the human race.
4. Literature acts as a living record of the past and a wake-up call to the present.
When we read literature from the past, say from the 15th century, we become aware of different behaviors, thoughts, fears, and conflicts. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, literature is not autonomous. It is not separate from the real world, and upon reading literature, we are transformed and then change our present reality as well. Reading old literature then doesn’t just give us information about the past. It’s not a museum where you see fossils from a distance behind a glass screen. Instead, it is a living record; it grows and changes with each new encounter.
Thus, literature is important because it connects the old worries with our present ones. It preserves the past when certain societies prefer to diminish our options by telling us, “Things have always been this way.” It then cautions us against making the same mistakes.
5. Finally, literature helps us deal with darkness.
Unlike those self-help individuals who want us to believe that we can always be happy or have everything we want if we only wish hard enough, literature is aware of the complexities of life. Because literature is multivalent and multilayered, it conditions us to deal with deep emotions, not to skim the surface.
It prevents us from airbrushing the darkness that is part of our human composition. We are small human beings in a huge universe. Our loved ones die in front of us. Bad people get away with crimes. Our own parents sometimes decide that they would rather give us up to an enemy soldier than comfort us. (They spend years afterward repeating the story as the funniest joke in the world). This is the nature of our lives. It’s chaotic.
However, no other field of study welcomes the contemplation of contradictions and possesses the discourse and the data that help in dealing with these contradictions, then offers a vicarious or therapeutic experience that takes readers through the pain, darkness, and paradoxes, in order to come out on the other end as stronger, happier, and healthier individuals.
Literature is thus essential because it tells us the truth about the nature of things, which is not always beautiful. Yet literature does not drop this bomb on us as science or philosophy does. It helps us deal with new realizations as well.
I conclude with the following admonition: Do not become writers unless you realize that writing puts you in the center of this hurricane.
The American writer Norman Mailer says, “Every one of my books had killed me a little more.”
When you write, you are in this vortex, trying to make sense of your crazy existence.
It is not always a successful endeavor.
There are many writers who suffer. They write, not because it is fun or helps them escape the real world, but because they are hurt, confused, and extremely sensitive, and they love this world, even the people who hurt them. They write to make sense of it all in the hope that no one else ever feels the compulsion to write like them again.
I think of writers as fools, but not the way we tend to think of fools.
I mean it in the Shakespearean sense. These are people who are considered odd by social standards and are not driven by material gains or power, people who sometimes speak in riddles and are only interested in the truth that eludes everybody else.
Writers are fools who encourage other people to love the fools in themselves.
This reminds me of the following quote by the American author and psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin: “I must learn to love the fool in me—the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of my human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my Fool.”
Before I end this speech, I will remind you that my work is out of my control.
It is my living record, and it is yours.
Make sense of it in a way that will benefit or expand your own existence.
Don’t care so much about what I thought or felt, unless you are a teacher.
Then pay very close attention.
I can’t have you inventing facts to fail students.
Literature is important because readers assume the power of interpretation.
Now, it’s your turn.