I want to tell my story with care. I want to tell it because I believe it matters. Because I know for a fact that my weird sisters** are reading this and relating. So I will go back to the beginning for a little bit, and let you in on a little secret: I have always, always been aware of my status as the “weird” one. Ever since I was a little kid. For as long as I can remember.
Inevitably, and without trying to, I always seem to stand out. Even when I am trying my absolute best to blend in, like in situations where my weirdness would invite violence. I say things I shouldn’t. I don’t act the way I’m supposed to. I overshare. I’m an open book by nature and not necessarily by choice. I call out hypocrisy and bigotry instinctively. I speak about my traumas. I’m straightforward, blunt, and I don’t play games. I say it like it is. And I don’t beat around the bush when I want or need something. I don’t even look right. I’m fat and I have piercings and big curly hair and visible tattoos. And I always, always, stand up for what I believe in. Even when I should instead consider my safety.
There are also things I really truly don’t understand, like fashion, influencer/celebrity culture, the desire to accumulate wealth and/or achieve social status. I tell potential bosses during first interviews that I don’t work late and work is not my priority (imagine their shock). I don’t care about making money or making sure I look like I have money. I wear the same clothes for the most part, like a uniform situation, a rotation of sorts, and don’t really have a “fashion sense”. I still wear clothes daily that I’ve had for over 10 years. I don’t know how to accessorize or apply make up, except very minimally. I don’t know how to perform femininity in a way that is socially acceptable, even though I consider myself extremely feminine. To me, femininity is a grand and complex performance which requires a lot of effort and acting, and I’m not a good actor, despite how hard I try. I have always been lacking. And that creates discomfort for a lot of people around me.
I am also constantly baffled by arbitrary social rules and find myself failing time and time again to adhere to them. I can’t count how many times and ways that has gotten me in trouble. For example, when I got gastric banding surgery in 2009 and people started to ask me how I got so thin, I told them I got surgery, much to my family’s horror. Apparently I was supposed to lie and say “I lost weight by eating healthy and exercising” and never disclose the shameful fact that I needed surgical help to look socially acceptable. It didn’t matter that I dropped 15kgs in 2 weeks, I was still expected to lie right to people’s faces, even though I knew they had eyes and a sense of time. And it didn’t matter if they believed me, because they wouldn’t, it mattered that I cared enough to lie. And I didn’t. I told the truth, every time. And that was a bad thing.
There are a lot of things that come naturally to people that I have struggled with my entire life. For years, people were put off by my directness, by the fact that I share my feelings and thoughts and political opinions openly and on public platforms, by the fact that I apparently have a “resting bitch face” and am “intimidating” (even though I think of myself as a smiley, kind person), by something about me they couldn’t quite put their finger on. Something about me was “off” and people could sense it. Even when neither they nor I knew what it was. I was very “intense”. I gave way too many impassioned speeches and started debates when provoked or intellectually stimulated. People would inform me I had “enemies” I didn’t even know about. A lot of people I’d never even met, I’d be told, actually hated me. I was “too much”, always, no matter how little I said or did. I never understood that.
But I managed (or tried) to teach myself, by watching my family and friends, how one was supposed to act. The general do’s-and-don’ts of existing in a Saudi public space. With time, I learned how to fake it, but only to a certain extent. I could attend an event and put up an okay performance, but it was never perfect. I stumbled over my words. I didn’t know the correct responses to traditional Saudi greetings or phrases. I embarrassed my mom by being too shy to talk to her friend’s daughters. My grip on the Arabic language was never too strong, especially under pressure. I wouldn’t know how to respond to questions. I couldn’t find my words. I stuttered and stumbled over them and over myself. Or I would just sit there, quiet and eerie-looking. I hated dressing up and I hated wearing make-up and you could tell. Heels were the bane of my existence. I dreaded those situations to the point of tears sometimes. But they were a natural part of life, something I had to do, never a choice. “Beauty is pain”, right? So I kept trying to be the person who did those things. Not out of choice, but out of necessity. I kept twisting and contorting myself into the person everyone told me I should be. I never wanted to be the odd one out. But it happened every time.
I managed to find kin along the way, thankfully. People who not only were not put off by my too-muchness and my weirdness but rather were drawn to it. Who appreciated my truth-telling and openness. Who respected my politics and my opinions. Who respected me and loved me for exactly who I was. Who didn’t force me or ask me to be anything other than myself. Who saw my intensity for the passion that it was. I found them at different points in my life, but each one of them saved me. I owe them everything. Thank you, beloveds (you know who you are).
It was around those people, and my family, that I could be a little more like my real self. A version closer to who I really was than the version the rest of the world sees. With my loved ones I could, to an extent, be me. And be loved. And accepted. I could be fun sometimes. I could give myself permission to be silly. If I had a bad day, they would comfort me. If I had a panic attack, they would try to help me come down from it. If I had a meltdown, they’d make sure I could get home or feel safe. If I over-shared, they would listen, and thank me for opening up to them. If I went silent and could not speak, they wouldn’t ask me to. When I was grieving the death of my father, they carried me through that period of intense madness and grief. They were my safe space.
It was within that space, that beautiful and safe and loving space my loved ones created for me, that I was able to maintain my sanity and feel some sense of belonging. A belonging I craved but always felt out of reach. But it was also the spaces I was able to create with their support that helped keep me alive and find a sense of purpose.
Because of my weirdness, I realized pretty early on that I would need to create my own communities if I wanted to survive. I knew this world was not made for me and I would have to make my own. But I couldn’t do it alone. So at age 18, in 2009, when that need for belonging plagued me, I went to my best friend for help. She was my first ever weird sister, the first person in the entire world who made me feel seen and whole from our first encounter. Even though she and I had only recently met, she was quickly becoming a big part of my life and I’d felt a closeness to her and an acceptance from her I had never felt before. I knew she could see my weirdness and that it was the part of me she was drawn to and loved. She felt similar. She felt like a mirror. I felt safe around her. She was the first person in my life who taught me what a friendship actually could be. I refer to her as the “platonic love of my life”, because she really is. Her friendship and compassion have made me the person I am today, and she continues to show me the same love and support, even though we now live on different continents. (May we one day reunite, my sister, my platonic love.)
Together, we co-created our first weird community. The Writing Club, as we called it, was a space for girls and women like us to be creative. It was the first of its kind, and we poured a lot of love and thought into it. Our meetings were very intimate, and while they mostly were centered around our writings, it was a space for us to be ourselves – our real, unfiltered selves – without judgment. We had strict rules about that. It was an explicitly “safe” space, and open expression was not only tolerated but encouraged. Bigotry was a big no-no. Criticism had to be kind or it wasn’t tolerated. Our members wrote about their love lives, their pain, their sexualities, their desires, their politics, their grief and joy. Nothing was off-limits. We could talk to each other about everything, and then share our work with the entire world if we wanted. We would go on to create the first english-speaking literary open-mic night in Riyadh in 2012. It was my first time performing my poetry on a stage and to an audience. We filled the hall with over 400 people. Guests had to sit on the floor for lack of enough chairs. Our members all got the chance to perform their work to their own local audience and it was a huge success. And I would continue to be a spoken-word poet for the rest of my life. That experience shaped me.
It was a beautiful project. And my best friend and I would continue to run the club until around 2016. By then, we’d even branched out and helped with the creation of sister-clubs all around the region. We traveled all over the SWANA region meeting members of our sister-clubs and performing at their events alongside them. We were making our voices heard. We were doing big important things all on our own. We had created our own little beautiful oasis in the desert.
The Writing Club died a natural death, I like to say often. It was time. Our job was done. And we did it beautifully and with love and so much care. My best friend and I still celebrate everything we were able to accomplish through it. It was our baby. In a lot of ways, it still lives in us. It was so, so beautiful. It was a time in our lives where it felt like anything was possible.
Then in 2017, a year before I left to Barcelona, I started to feel the void left behind by the conclusion of The Writing Club. I missed that feeling of belonging and community. The problem was, I had been suffering from a severe case of writer’s block – which was one of the reasons the writing club had to end – so another writing club was out of the question. Which is how, together with another very dear friend of mine, I got the idea of starting the Women’s Book Club. It was a book club by name only, in the sense that it didn’t quite operate the same way a conventional book club would. There was no set selected book we would discuss. The members were not actually required to do any reading (though most of them did). What it was, essentially, was a little debate club, where members were free to discuss any book they’d come across that had any kind of feminist themes. We stressed inclusivity and openness and safety, and our meetings were hotbeds for debates on feminist and queer theory and intersectionality, racism, sexism, and classism. We talked about everything and everyone was treated with respect and dignity, everyone was valid. The conversations flowed freely and everyone would leave with a sense of catharsis and the feeling of being heard. My friend and I had the time of our lives running it together. I was sad when I had to leave and we had to end it.
I will end the history lesson here. I wanted to give you a glimpse of the person I was before. The person who was willing and capable and able and did Big Things and started clubs and was successful and had a steady job and got on stage and did a TED Talk and charmed entire audiences. I wanted you to know my old self. Because she was important and she mattered. But she was also in a lot of pain. She never really felt like she fit in. She felt extremely alone, a lot of the time. And she put an extraordinary amount of pressure on herself to be and do all those things. It took so much energy.
When I came back from Barcelona, I couldn’t be her anymore. I was expected to, but I didn’t know how to. I spent 27 years collecting the data I’d need to be seen as a Normal Human, but I could no longer apply any of that knowledge anymore.
I felt broken. I felt like a disappointment. And the crash that followed when I tried to be her again and failed spectacularly was inevitable.
*For M and N
**A reference to Joanne Limburg’s book, “Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism”.