By Hasnaa Mokhtar
“When you do something from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
Layla arrived at my furnished apartment in Kuwait City on a Tuesday evening of October last year. I was gazing at the sixth-floor window as she parked her navy SUV, stepped out with her 4-year-old, and headed gracefully to the entrance. In less than a minute, they were both in my living room. Her toddler and mine shook hands and made their way to the toys corner. Layla, 27, sat on the beige sofa right across from me – a stranger – ready to reveal her trauma. She looked at me with a twinkle in her brown, almond shaped eyes. Inside them, I saw trapped tears and strangled dreams. I read untold stories of strength and hope. Her eyes were indeed an invitation to delve deeper into her heart. Into her soul.
“It feels good to be heard and not judged,” she confessed to me after our two-hour conversation.
“Of course. The least I can do,” I responded with a forced smile and sunken heart.
I felt helpless. Confused. There I was sitting with a woman who shared with me intimate details of her upbringing, family history, divorce, battering…etc. and thanked me for listening. And yet at that point of my doctoral path, my priorities were to write, graduate, secure a post-doc, and get employed. Publish. Publish. And publish. So much irony in two contradictory worlds; hers and mine. She shared with me vulnerably and I gave her little in return. Is this how we make the world a better place?
I claim that I care because I experienced violence first hand. I pursued graduate school because I wanted to take action. Caring and wanting to act continue to motivate me. But the demands of the academe suck the soul out of this passion of mine. Deconstruct. Analyze. Synthesize. Feed the ego regardless. Where does Layla stand in all of this? How do I do her painfully inspiring story justice? Where is her soul? Where is mine? Where is the soul in the academe?
During my ten-month stay in Kuwait, I learned how to shed layers of my presumptuous self during discussions with new people I met. The rule was since I grew up in Saudi Arabia to Saudi parents, I had some level of “expertise” on the country’s affairs. I was wrong. I recognized that humans are more than bodies, minds, and attitudes. Yet the bitter truth is that souls cannot be written into words. They linger in the background as Layla and I parted ways, trying to make sense of our messy lives. The difference between Layla and I is that I am exploiting her narrative, her pain, and her aspirations to advance my universe. While I grapple with my mental and moral contentions, I remain deeply thankful for the opportunity that allowed me to meet her. Listen to her. Befriend her. And all of the people I met in Kuwait.
I don’t want to be an ungrateful pessimist. I acknowledge the privilege of having access to education. But research is about the researcher as much as it is about the researched “because ‘our understanding of others can only proceed from within our own experience’” (Jackson 1989 in Bochner and Carolyn 2016, 57). We ought to be “remade” while “engaging in another’s worldview” (Mahmood 2005, 36-37). The legendary Octavia Butler wrote, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change" (Butler 2000, 19). Yet the remolding of my own self is at odds with how educational institutions that want to “change” the world function. The pace at which I am expected to master jargon, theorize abstracts, and rewrite history is exhausting. I prefer knowledge as a lifelong path of self-discovery, maturity, and humility.
Realistically speaking, I know I am no superheroine. I need to live and make ends meet. But I also need to focus and not lose sight of what matters. A hard balance to achieve in a world of grant awards, book prizes, job titles, and Instagram posts. In the midst of all of this, sometimes I feel as though my soul is dying. Even as I attempt to humanize my intellectual process and writing endeavors, I struggle. Vocabulary choices fail me. Victims. Survivors. Perpetrators. Narrow, lazy, and flat words, lacking in-depth meaning that can portray the web of lived experiences and forces shaping people’s existence by the minute.
What do I do with this conflict? Give up? I am not ready to quit yet. I know I am not alone in my fight. But “calling attention to something does not automatically mean its transformation” (Patel 2016, 1). Unless we resolve the agonies within our institutions and systems of knowledge, we cannot overcome the anguish of violence that rips people’s bodies and homes every single day. Unless we rework the internal and external simultaneously on personal and institutional levels, we should not expect much to change. Because transformation is achieved when “we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for” (brown 2017, 45). Unless we center the soul in the work we do, the stories we write, and the intentions we set, our academic and everyday world will persist in soulless decay.
I made a promise to Layla to email her my dissertation once it is ready. I will make sure to translate it to Arabic since not everyone I met reads English. I don’t think I fully grasp the magnitude of the task I have at hand. It frightens me. But having made those promises sparked a fire within me; to pour my heart and soul in narrating stories with the intention of constant self-growth and an ongoing commitment to challenging the status quo through thick and thin. Ameen.
Bochner, Arthur P., and Carolyn Ellis. 2016. Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories. New York, NY: Routledge.
brown, adrienne maree. 2017. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Kindle Edition. AK Press.
Butler, Octavia E. 1993. Parable of the Sower. Kindle Edition. New York: Open Road Integrated Media.
Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Patel, Leigh. 2016. Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. Edited by Donaldo Macedo. Kindle Edition. Series in Critical Narrative. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hasnaa Mokhtar is a Ph.D. candidate in International Development (interdisciplinary program) at Clark University. Her research focuses on decolonizing knowledge production of gender-based violence in the Arab Gulf states. She worked as a journalist in Arab News, and her articles have appeared in numerous publications. You can read her work at www.hasnaamokhtar.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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