Living in Toronto for the past seven years has taught me many things. It has taught me the joys of urban living, of walking no matter the weather, of carrying my groceries or pushing them in a trolley, of the helplessness of the homeless, of capitalism and ugly gentrification, and the crisis of affordable housing. I learned the pleasures of discovering a place on foot, which can be best described as intimately learning a place, every footstep a kiss.

Then I learned to push my son’s stroller and navigate the entire city (and its suburbs) through the perspective of a person on a wheelchair. It’s frustrating to say the least but at least doable. I learned to breastfeed everywhere: in tight cafés, big restaurants, in the middle of department stores, and on random benches on the sidewalk. Becoming a parent while living downtown made me grateful that I don’t have to strap my baby into a carseat and drive him around in an automobile to complete the most basic errands, and at the same time internally curse whenever my baby (finally!) slept and a then a car with an ear-shattering motor drives by recklessly in the middle of the night (why is this still legal?). Becoming a parent made me realize how the enemy of decent living space is capitalist real estate development. Political corruption. Living in downtown Toronto made me realize that I actually lived in a bubble. A short day trip to the eastern suburb of Scarborough was enough to show me the other poverty-stricken face of the city. Toronto is the city of construction, glass apartment buildings (‘condos’), elite mansions, cute old terraced houses, restaurants of every possible cuisine, little ethnic neighbourhoods, a lot of snow in the winter and a lot of sun in the summer, students, a great lakeshore with some benches and a bike lane (and nothing else, really), a dysfunctional highway and overpriced railway fares, a convenient airport across the lake, bubble tea, matcha, food-themed street festivals, beautiful forest trails (especially in autumn), hot drinks in -20 C weather.

I made the best friendships in this city, the type of friendships that elevate you intellectually and spiritually. Intellectual conversations punctuated with intense laughter and guilty caffeine sips. These seem like a distant memory now but they have shaped who I am today. I have learned to try to rejoice and take advantage of the power of coincidence and fate to bring people together, which always happens for a higher purpose on the long run. I call it ‘floating’, enjoying the waves, and then hopping on sailboats that pass by. Even if you regret hopping on for any reason, at least you know where you came from. At least you’ll have a story to tell you grandchildren.

But first, let’s deal with the children. My baby is awake.


أفكار غير بديهية بعد منتصف الليل

ساعات ببص حواليّا وجوايا وأحاول أحلل نفسي: انا ازاي طلعت كده؟ مين كانوا اكتر ناس اثروا فيّا؟ وكالعادة، بحب اربط الحاجة وعكسها. ساعات بحس ان حبي للفن والتعبير ناتج عن حرماني منهم في طفولتي. كنت دايماً بدوّر على الحاجة اللى مش موجودة، الناحية التانية، الآخَر وكده. لقيت الفنون بتشدني لمعرفة من نوع تاني مالوش علاقة بالارقام والبيانات و «الحقيقة» واستبدادهم اللى أحياناً بينهي اي حوار بدل ما يبدأه.

مدرستي ما كنش فيها اي اهتمام بالفنون. بس كانوا بيتفننوا في طرق تقييدهم لحرياتنا (زي الالتزام بطابور الصباح وزي المدرسة الكحلي ف اصفر وحبسنا في حوش المدرسة في حَر مدينة جدة برّة الفصل المكيَّف). أفتكر ان اي حد كان في مدارس عربية عارف مدى الإبداع البهلواني الكارنڤالي اللى بيظهر بين الحصص اول ما المدرسة تمشي: رقص وغناء وتطبيل. كل واحدة فينا وموهبتها. والجدران. كانت الحيطان وسور المدرسة همّا كراسة الرسم والشعر.

كل ده زرع جوايا يقين ان شخصية الانسان مش انعكاس سطحي للبيئة اللى فيها.

لو عايز ابنك يطلع فنان املى حياته علوم – عادي. لو عايزه ثورجي ربّيه في مجتمع قمعي. من الآخِر: ما تفتكرش ان اي حاجة ح تعملها نتيجتها محسومة. اعمال فنية كتير علمتني كده.

“Lina, would you like to feel the baby’s head?”

It is a miracle. One day you are used to the silence of your home. You return home and the silence is there, any time, waiting to be filled with thoughts. Thoughts everywhere. Suddenly, you give birth to a child and time is not yours anymore. For the time being, nothing is yours anymore, except this helpless child. This child is yours, and for some reason, it is enough. Your heart is content. This child is you.

Being a mother to a newborn is like giving your body and soul to someone else. I used to sleep 14 hours/day when I was pregnant. Now I consider myself having had a good night’s sleep if I can manage to sleep 4 uninterrupted hours. All of this comes with endless smiles. It is the most paradoxical experience I have ever been through.

I still recall the birth itself. The miracle of life. I felt every moment of it — zero pain relief. At six months postpartum, I better write it down now since I feel my memory slowly forgetting everything. The first thing I did in preparation for the birth after the positive pregnancy test was follow a friend’s advice to watch the documentary The Business of Being Born. It explores the healthcare systems’ over-medicalization of childbirth: treating childbirth as a medical emergency rather than a natural process.  Our contemporary healthcare systems and gynaecologists are very proficient at introducing unnecessary interventions (like induced labour to speed up dilation which can cause unnecessary pain that has mothers begging for epidurals) instead of allowing the mother to slowly and gradually arrive to full dilation and push the baby out with full control. Over 90% of births today occur with interventions. (Interventions are sometimes necessary — and in that case one cannot argue against them — but I believe most of them happen for the convenience of the healthcare system over the mother.) This is more of a problem in North America, where most mothers choose a gynaecologist to follow up on their low-risk pregnancies. Elsewhere in the world (e.g. the UK, Europe, and Japan), midwives are still the norm, since they are more experienced in no-complication deliveries. The documentary shows how medical students of gynaecology have never actually attended a normal delivery that has no complications! Thus, they are only experienced to deal with deliveries when things go wrong. They do not have the time nor patience to help a mother through the slow progressions of labour. This is why I decide to follow-up with a midwife, who does the same routine tests as would a gynaecologist and consults a doctor if things appear abnormal. In the world of midwives, I am not a patient, nothing is wrong with me: I am an expecting mother, with feelings, desires, and a brain that can make informed decisions about what I want and do not want. My own mother, who is a gynaecologist, knows what happens behinds the scenes in OB/GYN departments and advised me to go with a midwife.

In preparation for birth, I started searching for different birth philosophies. One cannot really control what will happen during delivery and medical emergencies do happen. But I firmly believe that mothers can control only ONE thing that can be detrimental to their experience of birth: their attitude. I read a bit about hypno-birthing (no, it is not hypnosis during childbirth) and the fear-tension-pain rule. The idea is that a mother should be as relaxed as possible going into labour (be in a low-lit room, play soft relaxing music, enjoy a warm bath) since this will help her muscles un-tense and therefore feel less pain during dilation and pushing. You can imagine how much this contrasts with the exaggerated image of a hospital childbirth (thanks to Hollywood), where a group of people you’ve never met are telling you to push in a room that is also unfamiliar to you. While a home birth is the ideal place for a mother’s relaxation, I did not want to take the risk in losing time transferring to a hospital in case something goes wrong — especially since it is my first baby. I decide to follow up with a midwife and have her with me at the hospital. The best and most useful thing I packed in my hospital bag was a positive attitude and no fear. Some mothers who are following hypno-birthing programs actually wear buttons that say “NO BIRTH HORROR STORIES” in their attempt to be positive about childbirth and avoid any person who feels like they can just narrate their own negative experience to an expecting mother. My husband and I also read an excellent book in preparation: The Birth Partner.

The labour room was pleasant enough, with lots of natural light and large windows overlooking the city. There was a jacuzzi tub in the bathroom, but it was too late for me to use anything in the room since I arrived to the hospital at 10 am fully dilated — it was time to push! I woke up that day at 6 am to some pain, which kept escalating. My husband tried to time the contractions and kept calling my midwife, and she told us to wait until the contractions where 3 minutes apart. We waited until I started vomiting with every contraction! We then decided to leave a voice message to the midwife that we’re going to the hospital. On the five-minute ride to the hospital, I could not sit straight in the car and a nurse from the hospital called my husband asking him to not forget the baby car seat (we already did, too late). She then asked to speak to me. I took the phone, muttered a ‘hello’ and threw it on the floor.

Once we entered the labour room, I collapsed on the bed. In between pushes, my husband gave me fruit juice and water for energy and hydration. At one point, my midwife tells me, “Lina, I’m going to pour medical-grade olive oil, ok?” She pours an entire bottle and the student midwife starts massaging my perineum. “We can see the head!” “Keep pushing!” “Now stop pushing. Push slowly.” “Take a deep breath.” “Lina, would you like to reach out and feel the head?” WHAT? I thought. (I actually reached out to feel the baby’s head at one point and this gave me the motivation to continue pushing — that they weren’t actually lying to me when they said they could see the head.) I could see the clock in my peripheral vision. Two hours had passed. I screamed on the last push, my mother caught the baby, then felt the best feeling in the world. No, I’m not referring to being a mother. I’m referring to the greatest rush of hormones that had me on a happy high. That’s it? This is what mothers have been doing all these centuries? My curiosity has been settled.

They placed my baby on my chest, skin-to-skin, right after he came out. (Skin-to-skin helps regulate baby’s body temperature.) He was very calm. I could see his little curious eyes searching. Four hours after baby’s birth, I was dispatched and returned home with a new human being. A miracle!

But why?!

At the bus station, I was alone. Walking. A white old lady with cute short white hair approached me and just stared at my face, just stared with a curious face, not knowing how to word what she was about to say. I had to ask, “Sorry?” to which she finally replied with, “Why do you wear this… this headpiece when you can show off your beauty?” I naturally responded by saying some of my Platonic views on how beauty is not physical, especially not in showing off one’s hair, etc. and she interrupted me with—“But why? Why do you wear it?” and I said, “For the same reason you decide to cover your body; it’s just different levels of modesty.” And she said “BUT WHY?” at which point I thought she was dumb. And then I said “Why do we have to cover here while in some countries in Africa women can go around topless?” to which she replied: “That’s an interesting question. But WHY?” and then she left off and did not respond to my “Have a good day!”

The moment after this happened I did not know how to assess it. That lady seemed extremely troubled by my headscarf. It’s amazing how covering one’s body can be offensive to others, when did this correlation begin? I am starting to hate what the media does to people’s minds. That look on her face was not one of innocent curiosity (at least halfway through our conversation), but one of pity. She felt extremely sad that all this beauty was covered. Well, what if I felt sad she was covering her… “beauty”?  How odd that must sound to her ears! I want you to uncover your “beauty” please. This is funny. What is beauty? And who owns it?

I do not blame her. She is old and probably has not had any Muslim friends who would enlighten her on why we take that extra step in covering our hair… which is not really an explicit reason but a naturally human one. She probably had to rely on the simplistic approaches of the media which include nothing but fruitless debates on the burqa ban and other inexplicable Islamophobic discourse. To her mind, I am an object, a stereotype who adheres to her prejudices.

I have never witnessed, through my study of the course of humanity’s history, such potency a piece of headscarf can hold. I wonder how this discourse will be perceived hundreds of years from now: White man’s fear of a headscarf and his burden to save the other. This is… funny and it must end.

The question of a woman covering her hair is not a religious one, nor is it a philosophical one (although one can induce philosophies from the practice). It is a sociological question. Humanity, since the beginning of time, had the urge to cover. The way in which a people decide to cover will never be explicable. It might be the climate of the geography or a certain deduction of religious texts (be they false or true). But in the end, the diversity with which we dress will be the same type of mosaic which includes our different skin colours, different political inclinations, different fields of study…

If someone asks you why you cover, ask them “Why do you?” If someone asks you why you won’t uncover, ask them “Why won’t you?”

Matters of Concern: Are We Our Governments?

I have been internally reflecting on how one’s very essence heavily depends on one’s surroundings, the society in which one lives. Likewise, society—its morals, ethics, and values—reflects the morals and ethics of the people who govern it. Corrupt governance is directly proportional to corrupt society. In these times of a heavily corrupt Arab world, you hear dismissive phrases like ‘we should change ourselves first before aspiring to change our leaders’ or ‘it is us who are corrupt, who throw garbage on our streets’ or ‘ihna sha’b maygeesh ghayr beldarb’ (we’re a people that can only be commanded with violence). You also hear those who call for peace and avoidance of bloodshed by not revolting against corruption (whose peace are they referring to?). This dismissive (self-)labeling of a people as having an intrinsic quality of laziness or corruption is what the a corrupt government and state hopes to achieve. It is in their interest that people do not think highly of themselves or acknowledge the power they have (in revolting and seizing power). People who believe themselves to be ‘apolitical’ or politically apathetic, people who just care about feeding their families, do not understand that they are indeed subscribing to a political system which convinces them to only care for their own immediate nuclear family and forget about the family next door who are unable to pay their bills. They are disillusioned into believing that there are may layers of separation between a citizen and their government, and nothing matters anyways. What they forget is that, even if they were able to secure a living for themselves, their children will grow up and interact with this society, and will not be satisfied with being literally spoon-fed by their parents everything from food to a ‘stable’ job.

What is remarkable is that, this very person, if you remove them from the society they are comfortable in and place them in a more equitable one, will nostalgically long for the ‘good old times’, despite having lived through these days and having once known them as hard times. What that person longs for is exclusive treatment, the sense of achievement they got investing their savings into property, and, like an ideal neoliberal citizen, building many walls around themselves so that they are rewarded with social distinction: gated communities, elite social and sports clubs, etc. Once these walls are removed and everyone is allowed to enter the spaces that were once walled-off, this person will feel as though everyone else did not work as hard as they did in order to earn an entrance. The person’s thinking will always operate on an inclusion/exclusion radar—an entitlement. It is no surprise, however. After all, the person only knows his own nuclear family, his own walled world. On the other hand, in the equitable society, this same person will be forced to obey the laws. This is where and how law can override corruption in a person. This equitable society is, of course, an utopian one. We still live in a world where there are varying degrees of corruption, especially since money is still the indicator of power.

Another issue I’ve been reflecting on is how I feel as a researcher researching what I research. 1) How does one choose the topic that will occupy most of one’s time—possibly for the rest of one’s life? 2) What is my power (or weakness) relation to the society I will study? As a way to answer to the first question, I have always thought it better and more appropriate to use the term ‘research concerns’ instead of ‘research interests’. What concerns you in this messed-up world of ours? Instead of a utilitarian goal-oriented approach that is not applicable for studying societies and humans (unless one wants to exploit them), framing the research as a concern reminds us of why we are doing what we are doing. It is not because I am following my idiosyncratic whimsical ‘interests’, but rather because I see this area of study as a matter of concern, something at stake.

On the Utility of Critique

As I continue to write endless papers critiquing our cultures, I continue to wonder: where is all this leading to? How does being critical make a difference? Aren’t we just better off being out there in the world building houses for the poor? Don’t words alienate us from each other?

Critique, along with the whole field of humanities, has a negative stereotype of being ‘useless’. It is hard to imagine the material impact of words. But what is ‘impact’? How can we measure it? Can we measure it?

I have several answers to this questions. First: Don’t words alienate us from each other? This is true in some cases (like convoluted academic texts). However, we should think about the opposite of words alienating us. Which words have, in fact, united us? This thought conjures up the mechanics of populism. After all, it was a collection of simple words that united people under the support of someone like Donald Trump: “Make America great again.” Did words alienate us from each other, in this case, or unite us? The greatest achievement of words are their ability to make us try to communicate to each other, even if that takes many incomplete incoherent sentences.

Second: Aren’t we just better off being out there in the world building houses for the poor? Doing this would be, of course, ideal. But there are other ways to fight inequality: to give resources for the poor (i.e. to not steal them) so that they are able to build their own houses; to give them words they can use to fight and argue for their rights.

To critique, above all, is to question reality. It is to question whether this lived reality we all participate in is the only possible one. Using the ambivalence of words, the critic tries to build a new world of endless possibilities. Like a child who starts to learn about the world they are in through learning pre-existing words (established signs and signifiers), the critic dreams of a world whose signs and structures do not yet register in contemporary thought, but perhaps someday they could. It is a world of uncertainty.  In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire says: “The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prison of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which he also imprisons reality. On the contrary, the more radical he is, the more fully he enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he can better transform it. He is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. He is not afraid to meet the people or enter into dialogue with them. He does not consider himself to be the proprietor of history or of men, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he does commit himself, within history, to fight at their side” (23-24).

Let us be raw, and ask the childish questions.

Do people only ever learn what they already know?

This blog started out as an outlet to express and ramble about my discomforts regarding the institution that is the university. I was a first-year undergraduate student in a large mass of students. I felt like a number. I am now writing this, six years later, and I am still a university student, a doctoral one. I wonder where this journey will take me. I wonder if I am still a number. I wonder what my eighteen-year-old self would think of my twenty-four-year-old self. Do I write differently? Is my writing style less emotional? More restrained? Does academia teach us to restrain emotion and assume an objective scholarly voice? What is all this jargon I am using? Where is it from? Whose words am I adopting?

Every time I begin to speak, my mind forms a jumble of Arabic and English words, and I struggle to speak them in a timely and orderly manner. I am forever detained between (two) languages, neither will ever be enough. Does poetry ease communication, or complicate it? How do we deal with the fact that poetry is almost impossible to translate? When will people stop sharing cliché Rumi quotes and start using their own words, for once? Is is not much more interesting to read a person’s first-person point of view than their experiences masked by layers and layers of academic ‘analysis’? Do you not get a spark of curiosity when someone finally starts explaining a theory using a personal anecdote? Does not the whole world stop and suddenly make sense to you?

People in academia are two types. There are the ones who think so highly of themselves and their systems and programs (they usually use words and sentence structures that alienate, blaming others for not understanding them instead of questioning their methods), and the ones who are laid back and not afraid to experiment, always trying to be aware of their subjectivities and shortcomings in order to improve. Perhaps those two types are the extremities of a spectrum, but I certainly hope I will be of the latter type. A book reviewer once told one of my professors that his writing style should be more ‘academic’ (my professor had written a book with a mindset to keep the style accessible to the non-specialist). What motivated the reviewer to say such a comment? How could such a comment even be constructive? ‘Be more academic.’ What is academic, anyways?

I wonder how different our world would be without coffee. Would there be less working hours? Does coffee make us more or less human? It does make us superhuman, but that is not equivalent to more human, on any level.