by Deonna Kelli Sayed
I became a writer in a faraway kingdom where I lived on top of two-thousand-year-old graves and in the land of specters and ninja women.
This is a true story.
The faraway land was in the Kingdom of Bahrain, home of the ancient Dilmun civilization, with burial mounds spread across the inhabited part of the small island-state. Amongst the graves were women in black, for the abaya business was booming in that part of the world (a fact that remains true to this day).
People assume women in this land to be silent. This is most certainly not true. Women are loud and proud and often own the abaya businesses. And to prove a point, I found my voice in this haunted Arabian desert. The journey began with a weight loss column, a groundbreaking grassroots creative arts group, and ghosts.
But let us go back to the summer before. It was 2005 in Tarrytown, New York. This is a little town on the Hudson River, a short train ride north of New York City, and it is the type of place you’d expect to meet artsy gals. During a writing workshop, I announced that my then-husband had accepted a job in Bahrain as the United Nations Resident Representative, which is the diplomatic equivalent to an ambassador’s post.
The small group of aspiring writers, all female, had met almost weekly for several months and included two published authors: one New Age spiritual writer who sought to spread enlightenment through her prose, and a woman who had co-authored a children’s book years early with her son. The structure of the class deemed that we had never read each other’s work, for better or for worse. I knew the instructor must have respected my writing because she designated me to drive her to back to the train station every week. She was an old school Yankee and conservative in her accolades, so I understood this honor meant something.
“I’m nervous,” I said when I announced in class the news of my husband’s assignment, “Because I’ve never experienced the diplomatic world before. I don’t know what to do.”
Many offered congratulations. The New Age woman shared some of her enlightenment.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said, “There are many people without a lot of education who enter the diplomatic world.”
“Of course,” I responded. Her statement bounced off of my head, which at that time was covered in a hijab that rested on top of a corpulent body burdened with raising four children and a disdain for exercise. My hijab influenced her assumptions. Had she read my writing, she would have never made such a statement. It is also unfathomable that a diplomatic community anywhere would be comprised of the undereducated. Yet, despite her misgivings on the subject, I didn’t speak back to her. I somehow felt that she was right; my voice was too inadequate and ill prepared to narrate a new global reality that waited.
What could a fat, white girl in hijab possibly have to say that mattered?
There are perks in being part of the diplomatic corps and in having “Her Excellency” in front of your name: six months after I arrived in Bahrain, I established the proper connections to write for local lifestyle magazines. I also helped establish the Gulf region’s first creative arts group, Elham, along with Kenyan-British artist Phoebe Boswell, and Bahraini author Ali al Saeed. Elham touted many regional and expat creatives in art, poetry, music and literature. Almost a decade later, Phoebe is doing cool things in London. Ali is publishing books and recently completed an international writers’ residency at the University of Iowa. Good things can emerge from little kingdoms on haunted islands.
Writing became my own way of dealing with various personal hauntings. Perhaps the biggest ghost I carried at that time literally rested on my body. I had been heavy all of my life, and I took some comfort in Islam’s modesty requirements as a way to circumvent Western standards of beauty. This orientation empowers many women. For me, the dress code eventually functioned as a cop-out. I could hide under abayas and shalwar chemise in the name of modesty and faith, but the fabric kept me housed in a constant cycle of self-loathing because of my weight.
I suppose I intuitively understood that writing embodies magical properties and exists as a way to make things happen. I decided to launch a very public weight loss column for Women This Month Bahrain where I personified the relationship with my weight as a toxic friendship.
I called the bitch Wilma.
“Dumping Wilma” became my monthly diary of dysfunction and triumph. This was the first time I bared all to an audience, and I did so in prose and kilograms. A local women’s gym co-sponsored my efforts, and I endured weekly rites of leg lifts on strange vibrating machines and cardio classes. I dieted, sweated, and wrote about the frustrations and triumphs that came with the monthly body measurements. I realize that one of my first personal narrative assignments dealt with the raw, hefty matters of my body. This was in the early stage of my writing voice, which eventually grew to delving into the sticky, vulnerable parts of my soul.
My weight dropped and I toned up, but I did not lose fast enough to sustain the column more than six months. I discovered that my body is not one to let go of things so easily, especially folds of skin holding a lifetime of stories. The experience left me with an unprecedented and grateful enthusiasm for exercise. But most importantly, I had finally tasted writing’s transformative alchemy. In doing so, I discovered that my voice meant something.
Fat, white covered girls do have something to say, indeed.
Ghosts still lingered, and did so through my first published book, procured to me through a jaunt into paranormal investigation. A public Muslim intellectual once commented, “Deonna, Americans are more afraid of ghosts than they are of Muslims.” This was 2010 where America seemed uncomfortable with anything to do with Islam. When my book came out in September 2011, I couldn’t help but to see a beautiful metaphor in those ten years after the 9/11 tragedy: I was a hijabi Muslim helping America deal with her nightmares.
But just as I unveiled spirited histories, I desired to personally unveil and recalibrate. My essay in the Love, Inshallah anthology, “Even Muslim Girls Get the Blues,” was accepted. During the editing process, I realized that I could not write authentically about my marriage because I no longer desired to be in it. When I finally severed the martial tether, the biggest demons had to be managed.
I carried a lifetime of inadequacies and invisibility tied to my weight and within the lack of faith in my voice. I felt like the walking embodiment of the imposter syndrome. Some metaphysical flaw I carried deemed me unworthy of love, success, and happiness. Ghost hunting provided the appropriate metaphor for my life jump: I amassed the ability to trek into dark in unknown, creepy places. If I could interrogate the strange mysterious of the dark, surely I would manage the journey inward. The caveat is that the ghosts one encounters in the space of the self are always are more frightening than the ones conjured through public imagination. The monsters you birth will chase you down.
Whereas ghosts geared me up for the going, writing saved me in more ways than one. Those days after divorce were some of my most fearful, but I wrote every day. I developed an anonymous, now defunct blog where I chronicled everything, from white, kafr guy flirtations to other not-so-sharia-compliant post-divorce fumbling.
But listen here: writing saved me. My journey became public in various essays at altmuslimah and through my Love, Inshallah column. People responded to my story. I learned to appreciate the transformative nature of personal narratives and how storytelling can change lives.
For those who think their story doesn’t matter, or feel too afraid or ashamed to share it, I assure you that it does. Someone out in the world somewhere needs to read what you have to say. They are waiting for verification that somebody else feels like they do. Writing is invocation; it is a way of making things happen. When you find the bravery to tell your story, that is the moment you become something bigger than yourself. That is when you call the world to you.
I promise you that these things are true.
My first two books are shelved in the New Age section at Barnes and Nobles. I sometimes image that the women who sat in my writing class long ago will one day stumble across them. I fantasize about her opening the page to see my picture (I’m in a trusty turban) in hopes that she will recognize me and remember how she once deemed me barely adequate to be part of a global world. I wish her well with her enlightenment. And I wish that my author’s picture could animate and be like, “Boo, bitch! What’s up?”
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Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Love, Inshallah contributor and a LoveInshallah.com editor. She is a published author and an emerging digital storyteller. Her work is also found at altmuslimah.com and Muslimah Media Watch. Deonna is currently working on a memoir with support from a Regional Artists’ Grant from the North Carolina United Arts Council. To learn more, visit her website, and join her on Facebook and Twitter.