She came to our coffee meeting with a slow pace and a gloomy face. It was not her style to put grey nail polish, and to wear a black shirt in the middle of a hot day. We were pretty anxious even by the way she pulled her chair and fell on it with a sigh.
“I’m not feeling well“, she murmured. What a surprise! Seems like our most memorable conversation comes when one of us in need for a shoulder to cry on, and -less dramatically- a listener to analyze the haunting voices inside our heads. We refrained from our usual caffeine dosage, and ordered 4 Vanilla Chai, hoping that this aromatic drink will help us in our delicate endeavour.
“I can’t feel pleasure anymore from the stuff that used to make me feel happy. I can’t conform to the roles that was assigned to me. I can’t give enough attention to daily chores.”
“If I go out I feel bad, if I don’t go out I feel bad. Thinking about work makes me feel bad, thinking about staying at home makes me feel bad. I’m in a ruthless loophole that doesn’t show any solution.”
“If I work, I will feel some faint achievement and self worth, but will have less time to care for my family. If I stay at home, I will care for my family, but will have a suppressed desire to be something and will pressure my offspring to do what I couldn’t have done in my youth.”
“Plus, with all the political garbage happening around us, I don’t feel secure about the future, mine, my family’s, or my country’s. And I really don’t know whether it’s better to stay and try to build it, or just leave and plant my roots somewhere else…”
We let her take the steam out of her concealed heart. She kept talking and talking, not with a complaining tone, or blaming anyone else for her black thoughts. Just like any woman in emotional distress, she just needed someone to listen.
“Well, first of all you know that this is just a phase and that it will pass, right?”
“Yes, I know. But does this makes it any better? This means that even after ignoring this emotional quagmire, I will get back to point zero and nothing would have changed!”
“Just putting that in mind is helpful. Knowing that bad thoughts are just dark clouds that will leave your horizon is a first step, cause otherwise, your mind will be too much focused on the negative that it won’t be able to try and find a way out.”
“Secondly, try for once treating yourself like you are treating us in times of need, with a calm soothing voice, and an optimistic opinion that everything will turn out to be alright.”
“I fear that this optimism has died with all the blows it took during the past few months. I tried and tried to find an alternative that might solve my issues. I looked for new fields of study, some just for mental stimulation and others for financial stability, and I schemed about how to balance my work / family needs, but at the end, everything just froze cause it is not its time yet.”
“This means that you just need time. Make your plans. Pray to God. And just enjoy this transitional period.”
“Easy said than done, ladies. Easy said than done.”
Street noise level above average. Temperature ok. I just wore something comfortable and pulled my favourite colourful scarf, made sure that I have the keys, the wallet and the sun glasses. No need for my mobile phone today. Anyone who wants something from me would better just wait. I headed to one of my favourite places on earth. The little cafe the Quartet chose for our weekly coffee. Actually, it’s not my favourite place per se, it’s just being with them makes any place just magical.
After the hellos and good morning, they sat down and ordered their first round.
Amal: Girls, I have no idea why I’m so tired these days. I dream of simply spending the day in bed, doing nothing.
Heba: why? anything happened? Sounds like the first stage of depression!
Amal: not at all. I’m quite happy with my life. I thank God day and night for my little family.
Heba: yes, elhamdlelah, but didn’t you want to do something more?
Zeinab: More? Is there anything more important than building the family? For me, the smiles of my husband and kids are worth the world, and I wouldn’t exchange them for the world.
Amal: Before you two get into one of your usual work versus stay-at-home discussions, hear me out. Since I was a young girl, I always imagined myself to be an important career oriented woman, and didn’t understand how come my mother and other female figures in my family were able to just stay at home and do nothing. Such a waste of time! Then after getting married and having my little baby, I discovered that tending for these new needs take a hell lot of energy and effort more than what I anticipated. And with time, as you know already, I have accepted the role I was dreading so much. But lately, I started feeling a bit of growing bitterness, which led eventually to helplessness and antipathy.
Suad intervened: take care dear, this is not a good sign at all! I didn’t want to comment about this before, cause I really don’t want to interfere in your personal life, but what you are describing is a recipe for an unhappy family. You are sacrificing a part of your heart, and no matter how your family appreciate it, you won’t feel compensated enough, and one day you will snap and destroy the things you treasure most.
Heba: I told you before. Sacrificing your career is a wrong decision. You studied hard for all those years, you worked to make a decent reputation, and then all of a sudden you let all of this get thrown away!
Zeinab: Hold on a minute… Amal, habibti, did you think about the consequences of what you are implying? I mean the little details? Where will you leave your baby? And are you 100% sure she will take care of him as good as you would do? And how much are you going to pay for the nursery? And for the transportation? Or will you just work your ass off just to pay the nursery and the taxis? And after all that, imagine with me a sample of your day. You wake up 45 minutes before your usual time, to get ready first and get your baby ready, then hurry up to drop him off, and run for office, then work for 8 hours, go to the nursery to fetch your exhausted son, then head home, but not for rest and recreation, for the start of your other job. From changing, feeding, bathing, then tending to the pile of laundry and dirty dishes, and finally arranging the house. Are you a super woman to do all of this and remain sane??
Suad: girls, girls, both of you have touched important issues, but please take it easy on Amal, she is in a tough situation and we are here to help her. Look Amal, first of all, know that you are not the only one who is facing this dilemma. Thousands of women across the world suffer from the same problem, regardless of their origins, or their mentality, and very few are able to strike a balance between the multitude of roles they perform. Also, keep in mind that there is not a single formula suitable for all situations. Details like how open minded, helpful and supportive is your husband, how demanding is your baby, how encouraging is your extended family, how demanding is your job,,,, and much more, they all affect your decision making. So please don’t let images from movies, or insinuations from stories and articles you read affect you in any way. Some of the feminist writers go to extreme measures to prove their point, and some house wives defend their raison d’être by just showing you the pitfalls of a working mother. So beware from both of them.
Amal: Thanks Suad for the balanced opinion. I needed your voice to calm the turbulences running inside my head. On one side, when I stay at home, I feel like I’m repressing the woman I wanted to be, and eventually I will turn to be another person than myself. On the other side, just thinking of fostering my ego through a well paved career, makes me incredibly guilty cause my family will definitely be negatively affected.
Heba: so what about building your own career? So many women were able to cultivate their talents and building a business out of it without neglecting their responsabulity.
Zeinab: yes yes,,, hmm I can give you have if you decided to start a catering business. I have some recipes you will eat your fingers after it.
Suad: we all know your delicious recipes Zeinab. But looking at the current economic and the political situation, I don’t think starting a business is such a good idea. Many small ventures started with big hopes and dreams only to be smashed with the harsh reality. I would advise you to take a more stable path.
Amal: you mean a 9 to 5 career? I tried it before but didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought.
Heba: enjoy? No one enjoys work, but we do it to build ourselves, make some money and have a meaning for our existence. No one enjoys work or their workouts, but they do it nonetheless. It’s a necessity of life.
Amal: well, I want something more meaningful than just working to have a pay check at the end of the month. I’m not rich, but elhamdlelah I have enough to make me not running after the salary. I want to make a difference, to benefit people. I want that in my funeral, people would remember me with my good deeds, and feel that I left a good mark in their lives.
Suad: You don’t need a career to do! There are tens of ways to reach the same funeral, not only with a career… There are orphanages, developmental projects, volunteering,,, etc
Amal: True, but this is not what I meant. I want to leave an imprint on this world.
Zeinab: why would you want to feed your ego that much? Every mother if she did her job correctly will leave a mark on her children. Doesn’t this fit your description?
Amal: I can’t argue otherwise, but still I need to fulfil my time with something other than changing diapers and googling the best recipes. Girls, I feel that my mind has started to rust.
Suad: what about your book club? Doesn’t it fill your time with something to do and think about? And what about studying? You can make use of the time spent at home and study online…
Amal: reading helps, but again it’s not enough. I just read for myself. It’s like filling my mind with lots of inputs, with no outputs at the other side. And as for studying, well I thought about it, but it feels like a lot of investment for something that most probably I won’t use.
Heba: look Amal, don’t fool yourself. You want to work. It is a hard choice, and will necessitate a lot of changes to your daily routine, but think about it from the other side. If you didn’t follow your heart and become estranged from your true self, you’ll end up in a place you didn’t want to be. Plus, the amazing woman your husband fell in love years ago will become someone else. Do you want to fit the stereotypical image of unfulfilled women who turn their lives and the lives of their husbands into a trial?
With that last sentence, she looked at the quartet, bid them farewell till they meet again.
Those bastards!!! How can they ever do that! Hate and Anger are so miniscule in front of what has been happening! So much blood, insanity, violence, and to top it we get to see this:
The image of the girl beaten up ferociously is tapped in my mind. Was it fun for you, you *#$%^& ? And thank for for getting back to cover the poor girl after beating her with batton and step on her with your filthy feet!
Every time I see one of you, I will remember this woman.
Every time your council comes on TV for some oops-we-‘re-sorry press conference, her screams will ring in my ears.
Rabena yente2m menko!!!
Here is a story from the old books to cheer you up:
عندما وقفت أسماء بنت أبي بكر ليلة الهجرة ترد بشجاعة على أبوجهل غضب ولطمها على وجهها، ثم خجل من نفسه فتركها وغادر المنزل وقال لمن معه: اكتموها عليَ لئلا تتحدث العرب أنا ضربنا النساء…
They exceeded the level of Abo Lahab himself!
After seeing the part of the Tahrir Woman herself, I got to notice ANOTHER horrific beating! Notice at second 59, there is a man and a woman wearing red pullover and red headscarf walking, then at 1:23 she’s standing in front of the man pointing at the girl, then at 1:39 there is an officer shooting with a gun towards the demonstrators, and at 1:43 they push her on the ground hitting her with their filthy boots! FILTH!!!!
In this time of turbulences, the last thing we need is pessimism, there is much work to be done, and so many troubles to be solved. Generally, on this blog I don’t want to talk about politics, there are so many opinions, views, hidden facts, and conflict.
That’s why I needed some change, fresh air, I simply needed a story of inspiration. And I was very lucky to get to know the name of a woman who changed her destiny, and found happiness despite the surroundings, and above all this, she was the first Middle Eastern woman to hold the title of Professor!!
Her name is Kulthum Odeh كلثوم عودة, she was born in 1892 in Nazareth, Palestine, and was the fifth girl in a family that wanted desperately a boy, so you can imagine with what face they have received her. Added to that her parents kept telling her that she was not pretty, and that she will end up as a maid serving her brother’s wife for the rest of her life مين ياخذك يا سلوله بتبقي كل عمرك عند امراة اخوك خدامه!!!
Though these words would ruin any little girl’s self esteem, for Kulthum it pushed her to study more, and back then, the girls who didn’t have good suitors were the only ones to be sent to school. After finishing her primary school education in Nazareth, she moved to the “Russian seminar” collage in the city of Bait Jala.
She was sixteen when she finished her schooling, and when returned back to Nazareth to work as a teacher at the Russian Association. During that period an Assembly of inspectors used to visit the schools, they were sent by the Russian society.
She started then publishing articles in several magazines such as “Alnafaes Alassryah” in Haifa, “Alhilal” in Cairo, and “Al-Hasnaa” in Beirut.
Kulthum fell in love with the Russian doctor Ivan Vasilev who worked at the General Hospital in Nazareth, and they were married 1913 though her parents strongly opposed. And this is something that perplexe me. I understand that getting married to a foreigner is unorthodox, but they didn’t expect her to get married altogether. Plus, she was 22, and through to their standards, she was almost a spinster.
Anyway, they fell in love and decided to get married regardless of the many barriers between them, and moved to Russia. After the October revolution and the outbreak of the civil war in Soviet Russia, Dr. Ivan ‘Kulthum’s husband’ volunteered with the Red Army. But he fell ill 1919 by the break of typhoid epidemic and died after 5 years of marriage, leaving his wife and their three young daughters struggling on their own. Kulthum worked the land to provide for her daughters, and continued her academic education assisted by a number of Russian Orientalists, lead by Kraczkowski, who met her earlier in Palestine.
She became a lecturer of Arabic language at the University of Leningrad (Petersburg) after she has acquired her PHD 1928. After that she founded the institute of Arabic dialects at the University of Moscow. She was the first Arab woman to hold the professor title! I don’t know how this little piece of info isn’t known for Middle Eastern women..
Kulthum visited Nazareth 1928 and went round Palestine and was welcomed by a number of Palestinian pioneers, thinkers and writers of “Al-saaleek Cafe,” that used to be a forum for Palestinians intellectuals in Jerusalem. Amongst them was Khalil Alskakini, Adel Jabr, Lindly Saliba Aljawzi,and Georgi Halabi.
Kulthum defended the right of her people. When the Soviet Union acknowledged the state of Israel in 1948, Kulthum sent a strong letter of condemnation to Stalin. The feedback came instantly by an order of imprisonment. But her Russian academic friends headed by the famous orientalist Kraczkowski stood by her and secured her release. According to her family members, she was arrested and detained at least twice during the Stalin reign.
After World War II, Kulthum moved to Moscow, where she continued teaching at the university, and was an active member of the Association of Soviet cultural relations with Arab countries. She won the “Medal of Honour” 1962 on her seventieth birthday, and before that she won two gold medals in recognition of her research and efforts. She died on the 24th of November 1965 and buried in a cemetery for VIPs in Moscow, her grave head stone was engraved in Arabic, and the words translates‘ An example for the living to follow’.
Some of the reasons I was very interested in knowing more about her, is the sweetness in some of her words. By chance I found an article she wrote and sent it to El Hilal magazine about happiness (below), I so want to know more of her writings though.
لقد استُقبِل ظهوري في هذا العالم بالدموع. وكلٌ يعلم كيف تُستَقبَل ولادة البنت عندنا نحن العرب، خصوصا إذا كانت هذه التعسة خامسة اخواتها ، وفي عائلة لم يرزقها الله صبيا. وهذه الكراهة رافقتني منذ صغري. فلم أذكر أن والديَّ عطفا مرة عليَّ وزاد في كراهة والدتي لي زعمها أني قبيحة الصورة. فنشأت قليلة الكلام كتوما أتجنبُ الناس، ولا همَّ لي سوى التعلم، ولا أذكر أن أحدا في بيتنا دعاني في صغري سوى “يا ستي سكوت” أو “يا سلولة” ، وانكبابي على العلم في بادئ الامر نشأ من كثرة ما كنت أسمع من والدتي “مين ياخدك يا سودة. بتبقي طول عمرك عند امرأة أخيك خدَّامة”. وكان ثمة شبحٌ مهولٌ لهذا التهديد، إن عمتي لم تتزوج، وكانت عندنا في البيت بمثابة خادم. فهال عقلي الصغير هذا الأمر، وصرت أفكر كيف أتخلص من هذا المستقبل التعس، لم أر بابا إلاّ بالعلم ولم يكن سوى مهنة التعليم في ذلك الوقت تُباح للمرأة. وقد كانت العادة قبل الحرب أن من يكون أول تلميذ في المدارس الروسية الابتدائية يتعلم في القسم الداخلي مجانا وبعدها يحصل على رتبة معلم. فعكفت على العمل وبلغت مُرادي. والفضل في هذا لوالدي، إذ إن والدتي المرحومة قاومت بكل ما لديها من وسائل دخولي المدرسة.
فهل كنت سعيدة في حياتي؟ نعم. إني وجدت في نفسي خُصلتين هما من أهم العوامل في هناء عيشي: الإقدام على العمل مع الثبات فيه، والمحبة، محبة كل شيء، الناس والطبيعة والعمل. هذه الخصلة الثانية هي التي تساعدني دائما في أحرج مواقف حياتي. إن تذليل المصاعب لبلوغ المراد هو أكبر عوامل السعادة. فإذا اقترنت هذه بسعادة من يحيط بنا أيضا، فهناك هناء العيش حقا. قضيت خمس سنوات بين أولئك البنات اللواتي كنت أعلمهن. وقد أحببتهن حبا ساعدني على أن أعيش مع كل واحدة منهن بعيشتها الصغيرة، وأن أساعدهن على قدر طاقتي. وقد قابلنني بالمثل، فكنت دائما أرى وجوها باسمة ضاحكة وكن يرافقنني في كثير من نزهاتي. وأذكر أني زرت مرَّة إحدى صديقاتي وكانت ابنتها تتعلم عندي ولها اثنتا عشرة سنة من العمر. ووجدت صديقتي في الفراش. فأخبرتني في أثناء الحديث بأنها غضبت أمس على ابنتها إذ قالت لأبيها : إذا ماتت أمي فتزوج معلمتي، فهي تكون لي أما… شعرت بسعادة لم أشعر بمثلها من قبل ملأت قلبي، إذ إن أولئك الصغيرات يحببنني كما أحبهن. وفي وقت فراغي كنت أزور أطراف المدينة، حيث يعيش الفلاحون، وأتفقد أطفالهم الصغار المهملين وقت الحصاد، وكان قلبي يتقطع ألما عندما أرى تلك العيون الملتهبة بالرمد ، فأغسلها بمحلول حامض البوريك، وبعد تنظيفها أنقط محلول الزنك عليها. أظن أن بعض الأطباء الذين لم يجعلهم الزمن آلهة بل ظلَّوا بشرا ، يدركون تلك السعادة التي كنت أشعر بها. عندما كنت أرى بعد أيام تلك العيون سليمة صافية، وتلك الأيدي الصغيرة تطوق عنقي . هذا الشعور كثيرا ما كان ينسيني تعبي ، عندما كنت في ساحة الحرب في البلقان وفي روسيا . ألم أكن سعيدة لتعافي كل جندي، أو لتخفيف آلامه ! ألم يرقص قلبي طربا عندما كنت أزور المريض وأراه متجها إلى الصحة، وأرى عائلته سعيدة لشفائه ؟ بلى إني كنت أحب الجميع فأتألم لآلام كل فرد وأفرح لفرحه، ولهذا لم تشعر نفسي أنها غريبة، مع أن لي مدة طويلة في الغربة.
والأمر الثاني، وأهميته لا تقل عن الأول وهو حسباني أن كل عمل شريفا، فلست أخجل من أي عمل كان، ما دام غير ماسِّ بشرفي ولا بشرف غيري. ولا أذكر من قال من الروسيين: ينبوع الحياة في داخلنا. فيا لها من حكمة بالغة. نعم، إن ينبوع الحياة فينا، فإذا قدرنا أن نروي جميع مظاهر حياتنا به، صارت حياتنا وردة زاهرة تتغلب برائحتها العطرة وجمالها على الأشواك التي هي كثيرة جدا في طريقنا. فلا تؤلمنا هذه الأشواك كما لو كانت وحدها. ومن لا يرتوي لا بُدَّ له من أن يقف كالعطشان فتجف حياته وتصير صحراء، والسعادة كالسراب فيها يركض وراءه فلا يصل إليه ولو كانت لديه الملايين. تعلمت أن أجد الجمال في كل ما يحيط بي، طبيعيا كان أو من صنع البشر، فجمال الطبيعة كان دائما يسَكِّن اضطراب نفسي، لأنه رمز الخلود، وأما صنع البشر فإنه كان يجدد قواي ويكسبني إعجابا بعقل الإنسان، فأنكب على العمل كالنملة. فأنا، ولا مبالغة، كنت في جميع أطوار حياتي سعيدة أشتغل راغبة لا مُلزَمَة.
Doris Lessing writes candidly about the conflicting feelings she had during this period (early motherhood) – a longing to spend more time with other new mothers, talking about babies and mashed food, and an equally strong desire to run away from them all. Lessing is highly critical of the ways in which many capable women seem to change after giving birth. She believes much women seem to change for a while, but then sooner or later they start getting restless, demanding and even neurotic. “There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very small child, ” she says.
Betty Friedan -writer, activist, feminist- firmly believed that we needed a broader definition of success than the ones largely held by modern society. We had to reframe family values in order to change the system in which every suburban mother struggled on her own, thinking there were something intrinsically wrong with her when she experienced the slightest sense of failure.
As for my generation, we are so carried away with the propaganda that we can do anything and everything we want, our feet don’t always touch the ground. Perhaps we forget to ask for help when we need it most.
From Elif Shafak’s Black Milk
After all, as even the smallest glimpse into the lives of women writers -East and West, past and present – keenly shows, every case is different. There is no single formula for motherhood and writing that suits us all. Instead, there are many paths on this literary journey, all leading to the same destination, each equally valuable. Just as every writer learns to develop his or her own unique style and is yet inspired by the works of others, as women, as human beings, we all elaborate our personal answers to universal questions and needs, heartened by one another’s courage. Elif Shafak – Black Milk
This is what summarizes what Shafak has learnt through her journey. And in my opinion, it summarizes the struggle of women who are entangled in the dilema of career versus family.
I was discussing this with a friend of mine, and at the end I told her:
Just remember that only you and your partner know what’s best. Pray for God to show you the right way and the strength to follow through implementing the decision (that’s what Istekhara prayer is all about). And remember that everything goes at its own pace, whether its family or professional achievements. And finally, only you put the standards of being a high achiever, not your family, friends, boss, society.
I can’t claim that I work by this rule all the time. Occasionally I pass by severe under-achievement phases, and I truly hate it. But to be honest, I also know that even if I chose career over family, from time to time I would have similar depressive thoughts. So in conclusion, both sides most probably face the same problem, only from different angles, so this entails that there is no one right answer to all. And as Shafak said, every woman will elaborate her own answer to universal questions. I pray that we accept our decisions, and try to fulfill our dreams.