Moving Beyond the US: #BlackLivesMatter and Decolonization

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun painted a memorial to George Floyd on the remainder of a destroyed wall in Binnish, Idlib (Syria’s northwest).
Source: RepublicWorld

George Floyd’s murder revived the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but also the #AllLivesMatter hashtag and its various offshoots. Thus, when I saw a photo of a Lebanese protester holding a sign that said #LebaneseLivesMatter on Twitter, the first thing I thought was just how unaware of the global conversation this person is. In fact, I retweeted the photo with the caption: “READ THE ROOM.”

Given the conversation on the poor judgement of some people—many of whom are well-intentioned—in trying to advocate for all lives and not just Black lives, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the image. But it lingered in my memory. It is undeniable that such a poster in the U.S. would be out of tune; that said, thinking about #BlackLivesMatter, a primarily U.S. movement, concurrently with other global issues is essential to understanding and thus dismantling U.S./white hegemony — which in and of itself is a global and not a U.S.-only issue.

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War (1975–90), which has been now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With inflation soaring and nearly 50% of Lebanese living under the poverty line, people hit the streets to demand their rights. I tried putting myself in their shoes: they’re watching social media explode with overwhelming support for #BlackLivesMatter, triggered, in their eyes as people unaware of the U.S. context, by the murder of one man, while thousands and thousands of people starved in Lebanon without anyone flinching.

I do not say this to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement, or to dismiss that George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue in the United States and around the world. Anti-Black racism exists in Lebanon too. Lebanon, and the Arab world at large, are notorious for their unjust, racist kafala system—amongst many other symptoms of deep-seated racism, such as Western beauty standards, lack of representation of people of color in the media, and the like. But the issue, for those who claim that “Lebanese Lives Matter”, is about the lack of media attention— they are not denying anti-Black racism.

Social media is dominated by U.S. voices and perspectives. For instance, the country with most Twitter users is the U.S. at 64 million, followed by Japan at 48 million, and Russia at 24 million, even though the U.S. clearly isn’t the most populated country in the world. Thus, what goes viral on social media and other media outlets is often dictated by trends in the U.S. As such, people in Lebanon, and elsewhere, may see the Black Lives Matter movement as hegemonic vis-à-vis their struggles: while the whole world is talking about George Floyd and Black lives, no one seems to care about Lebanon.

(responses against Lebanese Lives Matter)

Appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or slogan for other social justice movements dilutes people’s attention; it is a sort of hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is important to note that the intention of the Lebanese people, or any oppressed group, is not malicious; their intentions are very different from those of racist Americans who advocate for #AllLivesMatter.

What we are witnessing—outside the U.S., in Lebanon and elsewhere—is a process by which the lives of minorities in the U.S. matter to the world more than non-U.S. lives, let alone lives of minorities outside the U.S. The reason the world cares about George Floyd now more than we ever did about Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Venezuela—the list can go on forever—is because of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony inextricable from the systemic hold of white superiority and supremacy on the entire globe.

What we have here, therefore, is white supremacy benefitting the U.S.-turned-global fight against Black racism and police brutality. This may not seem like a problem, but the fight against racism cannot happen without global solidarity against U.S. hegemony. In a recent interview, Black activist Angela Davis “hop[ed] that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.” She also pointed in the direction of Brazil, saying “if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. . . . I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil.”

Davis recognizes, in pointing to Palestine and Brazil even as the Black community in the U.S. and its allies are in revolt, the importance of solidarity in dismantling transnational systems of oppression that know no borders. She gestures to the reality that one cannot selectively fight against oppression, for these systems are massive, interconnected, and inertial, requiring large amounts of force to disassemble them.

In this vein, it is also my wish that those who have now garnered a platform due to these systemic structures that privilege Western voices over non-Western ones—especially on social media—shed light on injustices that inflict much of the world now, not just the U.S. and the West. I hope that those people with influence remind those who are now so passionately protesting racist legacies—from statues to names of places and institutions—also speak up against injustices in other parts of the world in the future, as they arise.

On June 23rd of this year, Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was murdered by the Israeli police; he was shot and left to bleed for one and a half hours. He was accused of attempting “to ram his car into border guards” despite it being the day of his sister’s wedding. Like George Floyd, Ahmed Erekat, an unarmed Palestinian man, was assumed to be violent and left to die. But unlike Floyd’s murder, Erekat’s murder didn’t elicit a global outcry. Why is that? Where are the reading suggestions about the Palestinian struggle? Where are the “go educate yourselves” posts? Where are the “check your privilege” articles? 

This plea to talk about all forms of injustice, not those only occurring in the West, should not be seen as a means of hijacking the Black moment or the Black cause (which, admittedly, is often the unintended consequence of hashtags like #LebaneseLivesMatter or #PalestinianLivesMatter). Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle against white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. The white hegemonic structures killing Black people in the U.S. are the same structures allowing Israel to annex Palestine. From this standpoint, it becomes imperative that we engage in a more nuanced and dynamic form of solidarity, else we would be, in our struggle for justice, still perpetrating the structures we are fighting against. 

If we only talk about George Floyd and Black lives, we will not dismantle the system that murdered him.

My Skin My Logo

This piece is in response to my overconsumption of media and how it has both exhausted and angered me. The lyrics are lines from Kanye West’s (problematic, I know), “Black Skinhead” and the South African anti-apartheid song, “Senzenina”. The latter encapsulates my exhaustion at the attack of black bodies, how “our crime is that we are Black”. Black Skinhead captures my rage and a defiant pride in my race and skin. Black women are centered in this piece; we started the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we support Black men and our community as a whole. I’m sick and tired of the dehumanization of Black people and the exertion of control placed on our bodies. Our skin is ours, and our bodies are our own. We are not a vessel for your hatred and insecurity. Phumakim’! (Leave me alone!) 

Simone Hadebe is a graphic designer and artist with a BSc in Studio Art from Skidmore College.

absence of the latina intellectual: some abstract theory for your ass

there are several ideological lines,
the first being
there are three bodies to contend with:

my body is really heavy
with guilt, this leaking thing
charged with sex
and stifled

our body is really heavy
i am so crushed
by the burden of bodies belonging to me,
i must occupy space for our body
i must walk as these bodies,
these naked
and piling bodies,
these bodies thick
to stack and build upon,
these equally weak
and temporary bodies,
these bodies that are
simultaneously more and less

(i was holding my copy
of the women of brewster place
too tightly,
almost wrinkling
gloria’s name
when my white coworker
lifted her nose and said
she could only read books
she actually heard of and
that were well written)

finally their body is really heavy.
the body on
and outside my body
is rendered weak
in its own construction,

as it renders itself
during and only through
its relentless creation of my body
and their body
and whatever bodies
that birth themselves
in between, outside and aside
of this central body of work
which is itself a body

my body is really heavy.
our body is really heavy.
their body is really heavy.

this theory
comes up against
what I’ve identified
as three ideological lines
in their bodies of work:

my body is weak
against their body.
my body must relent
to their body of work.
my body is only here
because of their bodies
and body of work.

i disagree
with these lines
in their body of work.

precisely because
they are lines
and what lines
actually make up my body?

their bodies are all line
which is why
their body of work
consists of lines
and why my body
does not fit into these lines,
its form enjoys
everything but lines

(the chapin
I’ve been fucking
on and off for four years
makes it a point
to remind me
of his love for redheads
who burn easily)

walls are supported
by their body of work
walls are made by promises
written about in their bodies
they are losing their grip
on these promises

(old white women
point at my legs
when they are crossed
on the train and in their way.
on three occasions
in my adult life
white women have shoved
their chests in my face
non sexually)

my body is constant
and in the way
of their body of work
and it’s lines.

my form was here before
and birthed their bodies
my body will continue
to be a body of work
more than it is just my body

reading and writing
about the body
and their body
and their bodies of work
should render
all the bodies silent,
it doesn’t, I learned

(my ex
still has my copy
of borderlands
i still have her copy
of beloved)

as i wrap myself
in the flesh
of my own body
— my own, meaning i own it,
this is a line
from their body of work
that i am now forcing
on my own created body
and body of work —
I’ve learned to tell you
it isn’t there
you become accustomed
to my body of work
which is more my body
than my actual body

you will ask yourself:
where is this bitch

Artwork by Paula Rego “Mermaid Drowning Wendy”

Drag the Red

In a seventh grade classroom
a little white girl allows her
wandering mind to slip
onto the desk–
a fat wet sound
her fingers squeeze it absently
her eyes on the windowpane, soft
as fallen snow.

Public-school girl will not
(is not supposed to)
listen or remember teacher talk
“The bloody falls massacre…”
A river clinks with coppermine
Indians called Inuits
stealthy, slit, shot,
the pleasure of killing
a savage
the water runs red with copper
salty blood.

It is a history taught once
to twelve-year-olds turned
Canadians who call us
“Indigenous People”
Imagine us Pocahontasing
far away in time or
across more northern roads in
red places
I am a First Nations woman.

I only live
in history class.

Meanwhile, volunteers drag that
churning river for my bloated body.
I am blue lipped
skin, bubbles
trailing behind an orange raft
my hair waves tendrils of black ink in a
mirthful mud play
I lick the Winnipeg riverbed and
spout water when
Drag the Red Searchers Get
Grim Lesson on Finding, Identifying Bones

They drop hooks and chains into
water into history into news–
recorded as an overdose
all my fingernails were pulled out of
my body
was black and blue.

The cities are not safe for me either
in Canada in 2015, a quarter of
all women murdered
were Indigenous.

I play with the goldeye
it whiskers my cheeks fish kissing
nibbles my watery flesh from bone
leave me to my calcium
and collagen frame
scatter me so
I remain

So that I only die
in history class.

Artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat

When I Get Home: Solange’s Cartography

The map of Houston, Texas looks like a star break on a windshield. When the glass has been pierced by a sharp point, leaving a spiral of injury. Perhaps, due to a stone. A bullet. On the fourth track of Solange Knowles’ new album When I Get Home, there are gunshots. You could almost miss it; the clocking of the gun, interspersed with its firing, is so effortlessly melded into the melody. Much like news of recent deaths often sink beneath the frantic newness of news.

Unlike this album’s predecessor, the magnificent A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is less construction than map, a route along the roots of a steady, reflective driver: Solange. She is credited as a writer on every track. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is not her story – “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject” – but stories, plural, that are narrated by her. Here, Solange creates conceptual cartography: of her Southern roots, of black empowerment, black women, and their intersections with their own personal and collective histories, and their love, spirituality, emotions, and power.

Image result for solange when i get home

There are numerous, predominantly black, collaborators on this album, all in various capacities, ranging from features, production to writing. The lineup includes such names as Tyler, the Creator, The Dream, Metro Boomin’, Pharrell, The Dream, Cassie, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Raphael Saadiq, Abra, and Playboi Carti. The most interesting “collaborations” however are the interludes featuring a variety of black female voices, including the artist’s. One interlude is titled “Can I Hold the Mic” which choppily samples a video of crunk group Crime Mob’s female rappers Diamond and Princess faux-interviewing each other – “Uh, bitch, can I hold the mic?” This leads into a spoken-word section by Solange herself:

Image result for solange when i get home

“I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many – “

This instability of identity, of the failure to contain and distill Solange’s specific experience as a black woman, perhaps explains her decision to produce a sonic map instead, one that stops focusing on an inconstant, non-singular self, but instead actually charts out the terrain of self, exploring those many “mountains” and “rivers” that make up her emotional-historical-cultural-political being and existence. Part of this is paying a nod to those that came before her; on S McGregor, Solange includes a recording of Houston-born women Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad reciting a poem by their prolific mother Vivian Ayers: “I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye.” The track comes very early in the album, right after the repetitive, one-liner opener Things I Imagined, as if to foreshadow the movement, both literal and figurative, and the endings or goodbyes that Solange has undertaken to realize her visions. When she asks Can I Hold the Mic, it is not to profess a personal declaration, not to ask to be accepted as one self, or embodiment of self, not even to ask for a seat at the table, but instead, to ask us, to invite the world, along with her as she moves and retraces the “lines” and “curves” of her map of being.

Image result for solange when i get home

The cartography begins, as Solange’s life itself did, in Texas. If the map of Houston, her city, is a fractured spiral, then it revolves around its blackness. Houston Third Ward, where Solange grew up, is known for its black community. It was a civil rights epicenter in the sixties and had the first nonprofit hospital for black patients in the thick of the Jim Crow era. A profile by The New York Times Style Magazine states that “[Solange’s] output is infused by a fundamental orientation – culturally, politically, psychically – to blackness.” And this is her central spin throughout. Solange frequently incorporates the chopped n screwed hip-hop style in her core jazz and hip-hop music, inflecting her work with black musical forms that specifically nod to her city. A song celebrating black and brown things – “Black baes, black days”‘ – is named Almeda, an area in south-west Houston. S McGregor is for S MacGregor Way, where the aforementioned sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad grew up. Way to the Show’s “candy paint” lyric pays homage to Houston’s staple slab scene, where cars are painted to look candy-coated. Meanwhile, Beltway refers to the road looping around Houston, which, on the tracklist, is cleverly followed by Exit Scott, a real exit off the Beltway 8 in southern Houston. In visuals for the album, Solange prominently features a ranch, with horses and dancers in modern cowboy outfits. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail-riding from Texas to Louisiana,” Solange told Billboard. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” It is clear the geography serves as scaffolding for the album, propping up every vision executed by the artist.

It is in Exit Scott (interlude) where Solange showcases the poetry of Pat Parker, a lesbian black woman from Houston itself. The poem is about love. In the intermission, We Deal With the Freak’n, Solange includes audio of Alexyss Tylor from her show Sperm Power 2: “We are not only sexual beings, we are the walking embodiment of god consciousness”, a track that is preceded by the Gucci Mane feature My Skin My Logo, which contains an outro resembling sexual climax. Solange explores the nuances and spaces of black love and sexuality through the lens of actual black women, from Parker to Tylor, each exercising agency and ownership of their sexual and romantic narratives.

These also expand to the topic of spirituality. In ‘Nothing Without Intention’, Solange cites the black beauty blogger Goddess Lula Belle’s video on Florida water, an item Solange carried with her to the Met Gala in 2018. Florida water is a unisex cologne made with alcohol and essential oils, used for purification, spells and spiritual cleansing. It is also a prominent part of Afro-American spiritual culture. In the track Almeda, there is a lyric that declares “Black faith still can’t be washed away/ Not even in that Florida water.” Solange simultaneously celebrates black spirituality while asserting the resilience and strength of black faith as transcending every hope symbolized by any spiritual object; black faith is stronger than any spell. On top of that, the refrain “nothing without intention” is a call to the listener, perhaps, to examine Solange’s full cartography as painstakingly and thoroughly mapped. As in an exquisitely made poem, every element is cherry-picked for maximum fruition. But invoking intention is also a rallying cry to her community, to the black community, to the black women before, with, and after her, to know and find and search for their beauty and being.

Image result for solange when i get home visuals

The title My Skin My Logo is a reclamation of the idea of using blackness as a brand (re: blaxploitation) and exacting power over it. Binz offers a similar celebration of wealth in this lens – “Dollars never come on CP time/ Wish I could wake up on CP time” – where CP time is ‘colored people time’, a historically derogatory phrase used to imply that black people were lazy and tardy. Solange basks in her wealth and power, spinning the narrative that has historically held people like her down for their success.

Pride, having pride in an inconstant state of self and history, and comfort with this pride, are key factors of When I Get Home. A lyric in My Skin My Logo states to “blackberry the masses”, a gorgeous play on words that recalls the saying “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, which elevates dark skin. At the same time, there is the darker double meaning in “bury the masses.” It’s an invocation, to and for the black community, that is sweet-bitter; like the Houston cars lacquered to look like candy, this lyric draws on both the pain and beauty of blackness in a political world, invoking, above all, hope, the sweetness and necessity of it.

In the same NYT magazine profile mentioned earlier, Solange recalls being afraid of the Holy Ghost as a young girl at church. This fear, not just of that imaginary phantom, but a wide-encompassing fear, found in the pit of every artist’s chest, manifests in the intro track Things I Imagined. Solange ends this song with the lyric “Takin’ on the lie.” By the time we reach the last track, Solange no longer imagines but declares: I’m a Witness. This song transforms the old lyric into “Takin’ on the light.” There is a movement here between imagination and vision, fear and realization, off-track to grounded, intention to execution. In When I Get Home, a title itself implying a road and destination tied to self, Solange sketches for us this journey, maps out the paths that have led her to this exact moment as both artist and woman and black being. How strange, how searching, and how beautiful it all is.

Map of Houston, Texas

We Take What We’re Given

“You mustn’t mess me about.
I know I may look like a rhinoceros,
but I’ve got quite a thin skin really.”

-Benny Hogan, Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy

I was never the kind of girl who liked staying home from school. I loved books and learning, the soft pretzels they sold at recess (when all the operatic drama happened), and even the small wooden school desks with their deep secretive drawers. So if I stayed home, it meant I was really sick. I remember one such time, I was in the fifth grade, the year I got my period, the year I started to “fill out”, and I was marooned in my parent’s giant waterbed, sick as a dog, watching morning reruns of ER. My dad, my first fan and defender, was a bartender and worked mostly nights, so he would have been home too, resting probably, on the couch downstairs. Flicking through the channels, I landed upon the then-popular Jerry Springer Show, a talk show which promised belligerent guests, fistfights, abusive name-calling, and every kind of juicy love triangle. Springer even began the show by sliding down a stripper pole! This was the 90s, this was scandalous stuff! The episode that aired that day was about men who date fat women. Always having been the biggest girl in my class, I immediately tensed at the word fat.

I can still see the soft face of a woman with thick blue eyeshadow as she sobbed into the camera, wiping tears away with her stubby hands, and told the audience—and me—“Men who date fat women aren’t to be trusted. There must be something wrong with them. Just look at me! No one normal would want me.” This woman, who was fairly overweight, broke-up with her boyfriend on-air. At first, the boyfriend seemed like a normal guy to me. He pleaded with her to reconsider, but as the episode continued, I began looking at the boyfriend with a new vigilance too. What was wrong with him? Another woman told the audience—and me—that men only date fat women if they have a “fetish” and never for real love.

In those months, I had been reading through the Brontë and Austen canons, a lot of Maeve Binchy, Betty Smith, and learning about first love through books like Judy Bloom’s Forever…, where the protagonist Katherine is taught how to correctly rub “Ralph”, her boyfriend’s penis. And while I was self-conscious at that age like most kids, I hadn’t realized before that Jerry Springer episode that none of my literary heroines, who were intelligent and independent beings, were big girls. I had always identified with them, their bookishness, open-mindedness, and in many cases, love of walking, but now there was a disconnect. Despite various hardships, personal failings, or lowly circumstances of birth—I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Bennet—extra weight rarely seemed to plague any of them. Benny Hogan in Binchy’s Circle of Friends was my exception, but her beautiful and lean friend does ultimately come between Benny and her man. Thus, a bad seed was planted in me: you could be imperfect or poor or plain (“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!” –Jane Eyre) and still be lovable to men. The only inconceivable thing to be was fat.

I’d like to say I met a wonderful guy during my teenage years who disproved this notion, made me feel lovable, or that I somehow reached a higher level of consciousness between bell choir and Latin class and decided it was enough to love myself. I didn’t. It would take about fifteen years, when I moved outside of the United States, for a significant shift in my thinking. During the in-between years, despite beautiful friendships, academic accolades, and moving to college in New York City, my weight consumed me. I have always been amused by facts like ‘a person sleeps for approximately 1/3 of their life’ or ‘the average American will spend about 300 hours driving a year’, but I’d hate to think how many hours of my lifetime has been used thinking about the number on a scale. I won’t say ‘hours wasted’ because I do believe in prioritizing being healthy, strong, and active, but for a long time, weight was wrongly fixed to my lovability, not health. I once watched an interview with Lee Kwan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, where he coyly said that The Singapore Girl, the iconic flight attendant who always wears the form-fitting sarong kebaya, had to be on the “right side of thirty.” Or what? She was worthless. There was no question what side was the right side. While this example stinks of agism, that is how I felt about the number 200 – pounds that is. The further away from 200, the more worthy I felt. When I edged close to it, I’d stop eating, then binge, then over-exercise, stay away from parties and friends and dates, and instead walk for hours and hours from the bottom to the top of Manhattan. And when I would go over that number, everything in my life felt like a prop on a set for my real life, when I was doing the exact same things I was doing then but only, I was thinner. I remember how in college, a woman in an intro writing course told our class that though she was a skinny child, she wanted to be fat so she wouldn’t be raped. I could write a lot on this period of my life, but I’d prefer to focus on how it changed for me.

I never believed my self-worth was completely tied up with my body, but I did believe that people could only love me despite my body. A different article by a different person can go into obesity and its link to health; I’ll only say that mental health matters too. And a childhood and early adulthood of being shamed for one’s body, constantly dieting, and obsessing over numbers, is unhealthy and unproductive. You can read the studies that say fat-shaming doesn’t work. It’s true. For me, what worked was a constellation of changes. First, moving away for college allowed me to finally be in control of my own nutrition, and while I sometimes lapsed, I did start to understand how my individual body responded to different foods. I also read about nutrition and exercise; I started eating differently than how I was raised. I lost weight. As an emotional eater, I have gained weight time and again after a loss or a period of “the mean reds” as Holly Golightly would say, but I have the tools to get back on track now. In graduate school, when my father was ill, I began to read a lot more about health in general, and started to understand how other factors outside of our control contribute to our health and weight, things like environmental stressors, the tentacles of the processed food industry, and poverty. In US American culture, there is an inflation in the credence of self-reliance. This is one reason why the States doesn’t have universal health care and affordable higher education, and also why we see being overweight as an individual’s moral failure. These realizations were the foundation of a change I would have with my relationship with my body. The next stage came from stepping out of my own culture and seeing that the kinds of pervasive messages I grew up with about bodies were just ideas–not universal truths.

While I grew up knowing ideas of beauty were different in ancient cultures (Rubens’ paintings, Tang Dynasty’s plump princesses), these messages did little to empower me as a young woman, because White America is a forward-oriented society, valuing the new and progressive, while mostly denouncing what is old and traditional as either backwards, quaint, or fleetingly interesting like the fun facts on the lids of Snapple bottles. In societies sure of their own exceptionalism and superiority like White America, ideas of beauty from other time periods or other contemporary cultures will always be inherently inferior. This is why it is impossible for me to discuss my understanding of my young adult body without mentioning race. I grew up in Philadelphia, in a racially mixed neighborhood which was in a state of flux, moving from a white space to a black space, as defined by sociologist Elijah Anderson. As more people of African, Haitian, Arab, and Latino descent moved into my neighborhood, even as a child, I felt the tightening of ranks by the white families who stayed and smelled my first whiffs of racism from the exhaust fumes of the white families who fled. My family stayed and therefore during my girlhood, I was privy to eavesdropping on the gossip of white women appraising the new women of color in the neighborhood. Time and again, their conversations, imbued with both amusement and envy, would return to larger black women’s “confidence in their bodies” and “black men liking curvy women”, simultaneously implying that this was impossible in white culture, and internalizing for their younger white daughters that non-white (and non-white love)  was “other” and therefore, “inferior.” Considering her white boyfriend, the question the larger white woman on Jerry Springer had asked was: “What is wrong with him?”. Now, considering our neighbors who were women of color, some of who were thick or large, the message I received from the adult white women in my neighborhood was: “What is wrong with their non-white men?”. For the majority of these white mothers and eventually their white daughters, there was also a lack of motivation to get to know these women of color as individuals and understand the complex relationships they most likely were having with their own bodies, including issues of race and oppression. I will always feel there was a missed opportunity for all the mothers and daughters in the neighborhood to understand each other and the intersectionality of oppression before intersectionality was even a household word.

At this time, I’ll admit, my external behavior was mostly no more enlightened than my neighbors and I believed the skinny white girls who took Irish dance classes and cheerleading were the beautiful ones and everything else was “other” and “inferior”. Though, internally, as an avid book reader, I already felt something dishonest in these ideas of beauty and race. It would not take long until I chucked them. I distinctly remember an episode at recess in the seventh grade when a close friend, a white male classmate of mine, remarked on the sexiness of a black female classmate’s legs. This has stayed with me not only because even in the late-nineties, in my working class neighborhood, interracial dating or “crushes” were irregular, but also, because this girl was not tiny like the white Irish dance girls. She was shapely and her body echoed my own in that it was already metamorphosing into a woman’s body, and like me, I now imagine, she was already beginning to understand how it felt to be sexualized by men. If our social circles had not been self-segregated by race, maybe she and I would have been able to connect on this in ways that I could not connect with some of my white friends who were still waiting on the arrival of their period and womanhood. So, this was the village I was born into, but something told me it did not have to be this way, and that I could eventually, once I was free, create my own village. And this is exactly what I eventually did, starting with moving to the United Arab Emirates when I was twenty-three.

At that time, I was taking beginner’s Arabic and reading a lot about regional and Islamic culture, including the essay “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem” by the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, in which she details an eye-opening experience she had during her first trip to a department store in the United States. At the store, the saleswoman tells her, “Deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in special stores.” Mernissi is dumbfounded for as she tells the saleswoman:

“I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes,”…I buy my own material and the neighborhood seamstress…They just take my measurements each time I see them. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time.”

She goes on to compare how western men use time (and weight) to restrict and oppress women the same as how the Muslim man uses space (the harem). She says, “When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.” In the United States, isn’t it true that the damning messages we receive about our bodies start to proliferate just as we are coming into womanhood? As it had for me during the year I first got my period? I knew Mernissi was onto something, and I began to question the motives of a society that would make me feel unlovable just because of my size. Mernissi became part of my new village.

Then, I met a man in the UAE. Actually, we met while we were both traveling solo in Turkey, but soon discovered we lived as expats in the same country. This man was kind and smart, and though I’d had boyfriends before, he became my first adult love. On our first night together, my head was full of what he would think of my body. I wondered would he still, as Carole King sings, love me tomorrow? He would. I learned too that he wanted to save “going all the way” for marriage as he was religious, but I also learned there are so many ways to be intimate when you are loving. He constantly told me how beautiful I was and how much he loved my body, and I eventually believed him. There was no “despite my body” anymore. The woman on Jerry Springer had been wrong and I felt bad for her and for my many many girlfriends who still felt that way. This man and I would eventually part ways, but there would be other important men in my life, almost all of them not from the United States, who also made me feel lovable. I don’t want to give myself or the men or Mernissi all the credit; meeting so many women with different understandings of beauty in a small country like the UAE, during graduate school, and throughout the world has also helped me tremendously. My new village is wide and colorful.

In general, it might seem like the world is still stacked up against big girls, and in many ways, it still is. But the climate is a lot more diverse now than ten, twenty years ago. Every day, through various media forms, I see bodies of different colors, abilities and shapes in ways that weren’t visible when I was growing up. Social media, especially Instagram, can be damaging to people’s self-esteem, but it can also be empowering through the right kind of searching. You can find folks like Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn), a black American woman with curves, who doesn’t look like the typical yogi, but she is—and she is phenomenal. In her profile, she writes things like, “yoga is for every body” and “I see with my soul instead of my eyes”… a line Jane Eyre could get behind. There are also prominent body-positive women like Roxane Gay, Ashley Graham, and South Korea’s Vivian Geeyang Kim. There is more representation in traditional media too. Leaving Lena Dunham’s other issues aside, it was exciting to see her body on television, to see her mother’s body on television. Also, while plus-size clothing shopping used to be very limited and expensive, now there are more options, both in stores and through online shopping. Though, I still think Mernissi would feel restricted in American shopping malls for our insistence on arbitrary sizing of fast-fashion clothing.

This is a difficult essay to end because my knowledge of the body is constantly expanding, and my own relationship with my body and food is evolving. So I’ll end where I began, as a fifth grader reading. Another favorite childhood heroine of mine was Harriet the Spy. At one point, Harriet tells her nanny, “I want to see the whole world and I want to write down everything.” I might not have much in common with my fifth grade self anymore, but that fifth grader and my current self still want the same things Harriet wanted. And for this reason, I refuse to spend the hours of my life focused on making myself smaller, in body or soul. There are so many things to see and know, but we can’t do that if we are spending one-third of our lives sleeping and another third in our head obsessing about our body. It is our responsibility to not just accept what we are given, messages or ideas, but to keep taking from different places, further and wider. I also don’t espouse any kind of “real girls have curves” mantra; it is divisive and wrong. We are all real.

I wish I could close with the same soaring chords as “My Body is a Cage”, a song about a person who can’t be with the one they love because of their body. We don’t know if its because of sexuality, anxiety, disability, or physical appearance. We only know that the singer says, “we take what we are given.” But we don’t have to accept what we are given forever, because it isn’t the body that is ever really the cage. Society is the cage. And since we are society, we can change the shape of our bars, and we can let different people, villages, and ideas in or out.

Artwork by Lucian Freud

The Islander

They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.

Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.

How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.

These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.

Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.

It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.

Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.

We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.

This is my favorite daydream.

Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”

Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.

Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.

“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.

I hope he knows.

Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.

Artwork by Khalid AlHammadi