If there is one thing I love just as much as Shakespeare, it’s romance novels. The two are intertwined, I think, given Shakespeare’s penchant for romance. Every comedy has a couple to root for, every ending showcases a big wedding. I love happy endings more than anything. I think they’re particularly hard to write, and I think authors who do strive for them are very brave. What is braver than insisting on a happy ending, despite it all?
I love historical romances most of all. They always promise tension, a game of cat and mouse, a slow burn, the forbidden glimpse of an ankle, a disheveled cravat. When I was a teenager growing up in the Middle East, I would buy fat historical romance anthologies from Book Corner. It was difficult to find anything else because the country was very careful not to put anything even slightly steamy for sale. What they didn’t know, however, was how terribly steamy those anthologies were. They were fooled by the covers, which always showed a demure lady in a modest, pastel dress.
I was hooked. Not because there was sex on the page – though that was very useful for someone who would never, ever be told how bodies worked – but because I could understand the heroines. The same shackles that held them down were also holding me down, even though years and years of history separated us. I saw myself in every suffocated bluestocking, in every duchess with a bitingly sharp tongue. It was comforting, mostly because I was – am – a bit odd.
Odd is a good thing in a historical romance. And I wanted to feel like I, too, could be a good thing.
I was privileged. I am privileged. Book Corner could very well have decided not to carry those novels. I could have grown up without romance. I could still be in Abu Dhabi.
You’d get lucky, sometimes. I had my romance novels, and my sister once managed to get her hands on a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. The bare breasts on the cover were covered in a thick layer of shiny black Sharpie. I still remember how she painstakingly removed it, annoyed that anyone would deface the cover of a novel.
Still, it was hard to want to read romance novels when you lived in the Middle East. Once, a family friend visited from California and brought along with her a Debbie Macomber novel. It was a contemporary set on a ranch, so nothing like the historicals I had read. I wasn’t a fan of the hero, but read it cover to cover anyway. Another time, my best friend managed to get hold of a particularly steamy novel. That book became contraband on the playground at school. It was passed surreptitiously from girl to girl until the whole lot of us had read it.
It taught my friend what she did want, and it taught me what I didn’t want. But, more importantly, it created a safe space between the two of us. You could trust a girl that read a novel like that without drawing attention to herself.
What I’m really trying to get at is that all of this was unfair. It’s unfair that I wasn’t able to just walk into a bookstore and grab Sarah MacLean’s first book, or that I couldn’t enjoy a dreamy cover showing a woman in a rumpled dress in the arms of a man with shirtsleeves hanging onto his biceps for dear life. Without romance novels, I would have never learned from the masters. With no learning, there would be no writing of my own.
And there are hundreds of pages of my writing now.
I’d still be looking for the answers to questions that nobody was allowed to ask back home. Maybe I would be innocent to the point of being a bit stupid, though I find that hard to believe.
With approximately five romance novels underneath my belt (three historical anthologies, the Debbie Macomber, and the contraband romance novel), I became the one stop shop for any and all forbidden questions.
“Can you get pregnant if you swallow?” girls whispered to me.
“No,” I would reply sagely. “Not at all.”
I know it all seems comical, but it was the reality of our existence. We skipped the chapters about reproductive biology in class, so how were we supposed to know anything? Like I said: innocent to the point of being a bit stupid, though not on purpose. It’s a lot easier to control a girl when she doesn’t know very much. The Internet was of no help. Even Wikipedia pages were blocked.
Romance novels get a bad rap, but they don’t deserve it. When I think of all the questions they answered, I can’t help but be grateful. They told me that I deserve nothing but complete and utter fulfillment. And historicals in particular made me feel a little less alone. They told a teenaged Shereen that she didn’t have to be sexy to be desirable or interesting. What a comfort to someone who didn’t feel very sexy, let alone pretty. What a comfort to an adult who knows that she’ll only ever been seen as tiny and cute. In my novels, demure and modest was fine.
All of it was fine. I learned very quickly that all of us deserve to be loved, that most of us have this yearning for it, and that, a lot of the times, our actions are dictated by that very same yearning. I became empathetic and sensitive. I want all women to be able to explore that. I don’t want it to have to be through playground contraband. I don’t want them to have to rely on a family friend visiting from another country.
If our questions were not going to be answered, then the least we deserved was a healthy stock of romance novels.
I sometimes wonder what Shereen would be without Shakespeare. Half a person, probably. Shereen without romance novels would be even less of a person, I think. It’s been a privilege to be able to explore both with abandon.
A privilege that I would willingly bestow on everyone with absolutely no hesitation. After all, there is nothing like curling under the covers with a juicy romance novel, and drifting off to sleep convinced that you, too, will be capable of such vulnerability and openness.
Convinced that you’re worth loving.
Which, as any romance novel will tell you, you are. More than anything, you are worth loving.
43.6% of me is Iraqi, Turkish, and Armenian. That comes from my parents and grandparents. 6.2% of me is South Asian: the remnants of my great grandfather, an Indian man who fought for the British and found his way to Iraq. I even carry tiny pieces of my earlier ancestors, who lived in an 11,000-year-old settlement on the southern coast of Cyprus.
But if you asked, I’d just say Iraqi. Baghdad, Nineveh, Al-Anbar, Kurdistan, Saladin – my ancestors came from all over what was once known as Mesopotamia, the Land Between Two Rivers. The cradle of civilization, with a capital that was later known as the Paris of the Middle East.
I did not grow up in Iraq. I grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. All I ever saw of Iraq was the red sandstorm that rolled into Abu Dhabi one weekend. It filled the air with a fine terracotta dust. I watched it from inside our first floor apartment which sat prettily in front of the Persian Gulf.
“That red sand is from Iraq,” my grandmother observed, sitting in a chair by the ceiling-to-floor windows that dominated our home. She was snapping peas.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I know everything,” she said mysteriously.
When I was in sixth grade, I remember someone announcing on the school bus that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Naively, I thought to myself that this meant the war would be over. It wasn’t, of course. All of it had been an elaborate ploy to get at the oil that bursts at Iraq’s permanently damaged seams.
I shared a cavernous room with my grandmother, and she would tell me stories at night if she was in the mood for it. She claimed to have stopped a murder, and once told me that she’d grabbed a poisonous snake by the head. But she’d also tell quieter stories, usually about Baghdad. The door was always kept unlocked and people would burst in demanding conversation and a fresh cup of Turkish coffee. My mother and her brothers would sleep on the roof under the big, luminous, Arabian moon with only a net to protect them from mosquitoes. At the time, Baghdad boasted a night sky that was blanketed in more stars than you can imagine. So they would lie there all night, under the great, wide, endless expanse with the sickly smell of night-blooming jasmine rising up to meet them from the garden below.
I was in college when I learned that a lot of people do not see Iraqis as human beings. But I look ethnically ambiguous. My mountain-dwelling ancestors gave me their wide, dark eyes and sloped nose, but they also gave me their pale skin. So I pass, and people treat me like a human being, but not my people. Never my people.
Iraq is now primed to become a battleground, what with the attack on the airport in Baghdad. I do not know my homeland or my people, but I somehow feel the emptiness of having nowhere to go. I will never have anywhere that is mine.
“You have more freedom of speech here than you would in Iraq,” someone told me once.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said acidly. “I’ve never been.”
When I was a child, the only thing I did not have to work at was writing. I did, of course, struggle with letters like all the other children, writing every ‘e’ backwards until I trained my muscles to do it properly. But the one thing I knew, the thing I had somehow known since birth, was how to tell and love a story.
Books and writing are the ultimate companion to the lonely and melancholic child, and I was both. Every teacher I had was impressed by my writing ability, and those that had traveled to Abu Dhabi from the UK to teach English made sure to tell my parents just what they thought of me. They floated words like ‘exceptional,’ and ‘phenomenal,’ and ‘natural.’ Sometimes they said those words to my face, and I would take the compliments home to offer to my parents.
My father, every time without fail, would respond with a sage, “Do not believe everything people tell you.”
He did not mean for those words to be hurtful or dismissive. Arab parents try to raise humble, hardworking, overachieving children. Since I am humble, hardworking, and overachieving, I suppose they did their job.
But they also made me feel like an imposter in the circles that called to me. I became extraordinarily shy about sharing my writing with people. If I had had the choice, I don’t think I would have even submitted essays to my teachers. If I had had the choice, I would have kept every word secret. All the praise seemed embarrassing and pointless, and my mind warped my father’s advice until I was convinced that people were just being nice or polite.
Writing this blog sometimes gives me anxiety, because I worry about the kind of person my writing makes me out to be. Do you all think I am snobby? Stubborn, maybe? A little girl playing dress-up in the dusty corners of an abandoned theater? Or worse: does my straightforward and sure way of stating my opinion make me seem bratty or mean-spirited? I want my writing to be full of love and respect and excitement, but do I even know how to do that?
At the end of 2018, I went through a bit of a crisis. Because teenagers always go for the lowest hanging fruit, I was bullied quite a bit for my appearance in high school. I now have what I call ‘good face days,’ and ‘bad face days.’ Overall, I don’t know what I look like, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. It’s a sort of dysmorphia, but the kind that only rarely impacts my day-to-day life and, luckily, has not lead to any sort of self-destructive behaviors. But I digress. I was going through a particularly long streak of bad face days, and I decided to tackle it with writing because I really don’t know how else to stop carrying things with me. I love historical romance, so I thought I would try to describe someone – not myself, but someone – who looks like me, but using the same sort of language I’d find in a historical romance. That someone, that character, eventually found a personality. A setting followed, then a family, a hero, and the skeleton of a plot.
And so The Temple of Persephone was born, a love letter to the bruised, lonely, and melancholic teenager inside of me. I wrote a book she would want to read. I don’t know that I’ll ever outgrow the melancholy, but it was a soothing exercise. Soothing, but also exciting. Whenever I wrote something particularly good, I’d get this wonderful burst of adrenaline. I wrote and wrote and wrote, pushing my way through writer’s block until one day I saw that Avon had opened submissions for unagented manuscripts. It seemed like fate, so I pushed until I was done and had written something that, for the first time in my life, I believed in. My imposter syndrome was at an all-time low, and I finally felt like the scales would begin to tip in my favor.
But, being ever anxious, I still sought out a freelance editor to help me with my query letter, synopsis, and author biography. I felt sick sending her those first drafts because, well, even after writing a 300 page novel, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that my story was stupid. Three people read it before I sent it in: my mother, my little sister, and my best friend from high school. I cannot describe the excitement I felt the night my best friend read it – and she read it in one night. She has never minced words with me, and although she is always kind, she says what she thinks.
And she loved it.
We talked all night, dissecting every character, every plot point. My heart was beating wildly in my chest the whole time. I was so happy. I’d switch out my day-to-day melancholy for that feeling any day.
My editor eventually got back to me, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to open up her message. “You’re a very strong writer,” she said, “and your story sounds fantastic!”
And all the things my teachers had said to me came flooding back, and I thought that there was the possibility that I should have believed them. Maybe people don’t have to be nice, and maybe they say what they mean. With a lot of terror in my chest, I submitted my packet to Avon. My editor kindly suggested two other publishers to me, so I submitted to them too.
That was eleven days ago now.
Yesterday was a disaster. I woke up at six AM and saw that my phone was riddled with texts, voice mails, and e-mails. Work had needed me to approve a document for the process I had authored, but I’d gone to bed by ten. I RAN out of my apartment, driving to Pasadena as the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. I was so early that I had to disable the alarm in our office. I approved the documents and spent a good ten minutes at my desk trying to wake myself up. I checked my e-mail, and saw that a publisher had gotten back to me.
I’ve never received such a thrashing in my life. Interesting premise, but we couldn’t connect with the narrative. Work on deepening the POV, because your characters aren’t dynamic in the slightest. I would quote the actual e-mail, but I deleted it last night for my own sake.
Do not believe everything people tell you.
Everything I had overcome in the eight months it took me to write this novel came rushing back in a millisecond. What is worse than telling a writer that they weren’t able to execute their own good idea? And characters – characters are what I’m supposed to be good at. I’ve always been told that, but you know what my father would say.
What might not be good for us, they said, might be perfect for another publisher! An odd thing to say, when you’ve just told me that I submitted unrelatable, flat prose. What publisher would want that?
I carried the criticism with me all day, eventually writing to my editor. She was baffled, and ultimately told me that I should let it roll off my back. After eating a pity pastry, I decided she was right. Because, well, what do I do with that? How do I return to my novel with such nonspecific criticism?
A lack of specificity, my editor said, pointed to this being nothing more than a form letter, copy pasted for the purpose of kicking me to the curb.
I wonder, though, was the harshness so necessary? I can sometimes be harsh at book club or here on my blog, but I would never be harsh to an author’s face. It isn’t constructive, and every time I have spoken to an author who has written something I’ve disliked (this has actually happened more times than you’d imagine) I’ve always been incredibly tactful about it.
Because writing is scary. A simple, ‘We are not interested at this time,’ would have sufficed.
I’m not really here for pity or sympathy. I just felt that I couldn’t carry this with me anymore and, like someone who will never learn her lesson, decided to write about it.
When I was a little girl, much smaller than I am now, I went to a school called Al-Rabeeh. The school was in an old villa in Abu Dhabi and I didn’t like it very much. I used to burst into tears every time my mother would drop me off, and I cried every day until a sweet girl with cornrows sat next to me and asked me why I was so sad all the time.
I can’t remember what I answered, but I do remember that we had a deep and unwavering friendship that lasted until the sixth grade. She was the Lavender to my Matilda, but this is not a story about us. It’s a story about the playground.
Al-Rabeeh eventually moved to a proper building with a real playground, but when I started there we were still in the crumbly old villa. Children shared folktales about the villa, like the rumor about the honeycomb patterned cement wall. If you put your hand through one of the hexagonal holes, children whispered to one another on the playground, a hand would grab yours and pull. It was terrifying. Plenty of the girls and boys stuck their hands through the holes in hopes of antagonizing the ghost. I was too scared, and caution was my middle name.
Aside from the haunted wall, there was a small area off the main playground that was filled with odd, jewel-colored plastic domes. Like most of the playground, this area was shaded to protect us from the sweltering Arabian sun. But, as it always did, the heat seeped through. Crawling into one of those plastic domes was like knowingly inserting yourself into an oven. And, as none of us aspired to leave the playground a rotisserie chicken, we avoided the plastic domes. I would peek in every so often, but only because I was taken with the colors the translucent plastic would throw onto the playground walls. Like stained glass, which I had only ever seen in books about churches and old, crumbling things.
Near the edge of the plastic dome farm sat a tree. It was an odd place for a tree, out of the sun and isolated. One day, I wandered into the dome area to look at the colors and to enjoy a little bit of quiet. I’ve always been attracted to quiet, which is why I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence hiding in school libraries. Because I was very small, and because there were no adults to watch me, I was not allowed to sit in the library alone. If I wanted peace and quiet, I had to go to the plastic domes. So I went, usually when the others felt like tempting the ghosts that haunted the cement wall.
On this particular day, I went to the tree. I was an odd child, always silent and watchful. I was so quiet that, when we lived in South Carolina for a bit, school officials came to my family home to make sure I wasn’t being mistreated. My mother was flabbergasted and offended, but apparently my habit of not interacting with the other children and hiding away with books was not normal. That was before Al-Rabeeh, before Abu Dhabi. Nobody in Abu Dhabi really cared. In fact, I was the ideal Arab student: quiet and obedient.
So I quietly examined the tree, taking a close look at the gnarled bark and tracing the bumps with my fingers. The plastic domes cast their rainbow light over the tree, and the heat seeped into my red-collared shirt. I contemplated joining the other kids at the haunted wall, but then I saw it: a pair of gossamer wings jutting out of a hole in the tree.
What a dilemma.
I reasoned I could do one of two things: I could pull at the wings, or I could leave the bug alone. I didn’t like bugs, I didn’t want to hurt this particular bug, it could be trapped, I could be leaving it to die – when I mentioned my middle name, I forgot to add that cautious was hyphenated with overthinker. I agonized over these tiny, glimmering wings, feeling slightly offended that my quiet time with Al-Rabeeh’s plastic jewels had been interrupted by a philosophical and moral debacle. I think it took me a good twenty minutes to decide what to do – but twenty minutes to an elementary school student may as well be a full twenty hours. Having retreated deeper into the dome valley, I returned to the tree, took a deep breath, and pulled as gently as I could at the wings.
The little butterfly had been stuck after all, trapped by the sap that filled the tiny hole. I was gentle enough not to hurt it, and it fluttered around me. It was a brown little thing, certainly not the most remarkable looking butterfly in the world, but I was not one to judge, having grown up feeling like the most unremarkable person in the world anyway. As a final parting gift, the butterfly decided to land right on the tip of my nose. I froze, very worried about a bug touching me with its spindly little legs, and also because I knew, deep in my very young soul that felt very old and tired already, that I was being thanked in the way that suited me best: silently.
A few months ago, I came home from work and I picked up a mug by my bedside table. It was filled with the quintessential Middle Eastern drink: laban. I lifted the mug to take a sip and caught sight of a black dot, stark against all the white.
It was a bug. Not a butterfly with soft little fairy wings, but an average, run-of-the-mill bug. I peered into my mug for a moment, wondering how disgusted I was supposed to feel, when I was suddenly gripped with an intense memory: the plastic domes, the gnarled tree, the unremarkable butterfly.
I went to my kitchen and used a spoon to fish the bug out of my laban, and I walked it out onto the balcony where I gently placed it on the concrete in a puddle of milk-but-not-really.
It didn’t take me twenty minutes this time. And, wouldn’t you know, the little thing dried in the cool breeze and took off, disappearing into the Los Angeles night like the butterfly, albeit on a different continent, had done all those years ago.
This post isn’t 100% about Shakespeare, and it probably doesn’t belong on this blog. I wanted to write about books and, in a way, write about myself. My paper journal has seen far too much of this nonsense, so I thought I’d write everything out here instead. I’ve never been very good at suffocating my urge to write. And, as you’ll find out, I’ve never been able to suffocate my love for reading, either.
ACT I. EARLY CHILDHOOD
One of my earliest memories features me sitting in a classroom filled with colorful plastic chairs. In the memory, I am sitting on one of these hard chairs. My teacher is by my side, and my classmates are sitting on the carpeted ground before me.
And I’m reading to them.
It’s a cardboard book about a white bunny who loves to garden. I remember feeling especially pleased about being able to read the word vegetable with no trouble. The book was short, the print was massive, but I was the only child in the classroom who could read properly. And, naturally, I wanted to tell everybody about this white bunny and his garden. It was so important that I share the story. My life depended on it.
At home, I had a book called The Story of the Tooth Fairy. It was a small, flimsy thing. A Little Golden Book, but not the sturdy kind. I was fascinated by it. The illustrations were done in watercolors, and the aesthetic was positively dreamy. Pastels blended into each other seamlessly, and everything glowed in shades of powder pink and daffodil yellow. Now, the book didn’t glow, obviously, but I could see the pages shine nonetheless. I daydreamed endlessly about lounging on fluffy blue clouds and dipping my small hands in sparkling lavender-colored brooks. I dreamed about being a fairy in a pink flower petal dress with big, pearly wings. When Shakespeare wrote about fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I pictured similar things. In my mind, the entire story played out in watercolors, and I felt immediately drawn to the simple idea of fairies. All because of The Story of the Tooth Fairy. In my every day life, I still see myself drawn to the aesthetic of that book. I pick out pastel dresses and try to surround myself with the same dreaminess that that book enveloped me in. How I present myself to the world, partially informed by a Little Golden Book.
When I wasn’t daydreaming about being a fairy, I was reading other things. I remember A Kiss for Little Bear – I loved Little Bear to pieces. I remember laughing over the hen finding kisses disgusting. And, oh, those Little Critter books. Just Grandma and Me was a constant companion of mine. The bright colors from that book now mix in with the dreamy colors from The Story of the Tooth Fairy in my adult life. And I still remember the first sentence: “We went to the beach, just Grandma and me.”
ACT II. CHILDHOOD
In the third grade, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My teacher, Miss Hannah, wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. That book was the sixth grade reader. She told me as much, and I told her it was fine, because I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Roald Dahl took over my life at this point, with his dark and funny stories of triumphant children. I read The Witches, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, Matilda, Boy, and so many others. My favorite was The Witches, despite being a little Matilda myself.
It was in third grade that I began to write stories of my own. We were asked to write stories during class one day, so I did. I wrote a story about a neglected little girl who made friends with (brace yourself) the ghosts that haunted her swimming pool. Looking back, I think I was a bit lonely, with all my daydreaming and reading. I had a best friend, but I think a part of me wanted to fit in better. But instead of actually being a social butterfly, I decided to write a story about befriending ghosts. Swimming pool ghosts.
My teacher, who I’m sure was baffled by me, took it around and read it to the other classes. I felt very shy about the whole thing, but happy with the scratch-and-sniff sticker I received for it.
You know what’s funny? That story was more than one page long. It was long, and it had paragraph breaks, and to this day I still don’t know how to be succinct.
I also unknowingly met one of my first loves in third grade. I was in a British primary school in Abu Dhabi, so we weren’t taught about the colors of the rainbow via Roy G. Biv. A big painted rhyme was pinned onto the board on the left side of the classroom. It read: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. I remember idly wondering two things: who Richard was, and what the word ‘vain,’ meant.
Richard, of course, was Richard III of the House of York. The dictionary told me what vain meant.
ACT III. EARLY ADOLESCENCE
Every year, at my British primary school, we were assigned ‘topics.’ We focused on each topic for half a year. They consisted of things like space, the rainforest, and Greek mythology.
Greek mythology was an absolute goldmine for me. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be reading these stories. While my classmates played outside, I huddled up on a bench and read endlessly. My mother had bought a book for my sister and I on the very topic, probably because she wanted to supplement our schoolwork. I remember seeking it out – The Greek Gods by Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes. I loved all the stories, but I loved the chapter on Demeter most of all. In the story, Demeter’s daughter Persephone pulls at a berry bush, which causes a great chasm to appear in the earth. “Out of the hole leaped six black horses, dragging behind them a golden chariot. In the chariot stood a tall figure in a flowing black cape. On his head was a black crown. She had no time to scream. He reached out his long arm, snatched her into the chariot, and lashed his horses. They curvetted in the air, and plunged into the hole again.”
I was obsessed. The story of Hades and Persephone has haunted me from that point onward. As it turned out, The Greek Gods was highly inaccurate, but it didn’t matter. It was the first time I met Persephone, and I related to her with a vengeance. She didn’t have very much freedom until she became Queen of the Underworld. I wondered when my time would come to ascend the throne.
And, you know what? Some things stay with you forever. Persephone has stayed with me, and I’ve hunted down every scrap of her story to the best of my ability. I have a nostalgic fondness for pomegranates, I was delighted when I found out that scholars compare Perdita to Persephone in The Winter’s Tale, the dress I’m wearing in the picture above was purchased just because it reminded me of her myth. Recently, I began to read a webcomic retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone. The artist decided to make Persephone very small, and with a pixie cut.
“Just like me,” I thought, giddy.
I didn’t think seeing a Persephone that looked like me mattered anymore. Oh, it used to. Very much. Every depiction showed an absolutely lovely Persephone, with long, flowing hair dotted with flowers. I was (and still am, to a degree), a gawky little thing, all bones and sharp edges. There was something soothing about seeing a Persephone with short hair. Some things never stop mattering, I suppose.
Greek mythology is a great love of mine, but I’ve always been able to love a great many things at once. While I dealt with the onslaught of passion for it, I was introduced to yet another love: Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was no longer the sixth grade reader. Instead, we were supposed to read Kensuke’s Kingdom and Dakota of the White Flats by Philip Ridley. My class adored Dakota. Kensuke’s Kingdom was labeled boring – boring, and yet there I was, violently clinging to it. The writing was so hushed, so lyrical. I couldn’t believe that someone was writing for me – for a kid – in such a way. It influenced my writing in a way I can’t describe, and even if I do struggle to write lyrically, I still feel the desire to. I took the book home to my mother and begged her to read it too. She did, despite being in her 40s. She told me she loved it, and I felt validated.
ACT IV. ADOLESCENCE
I switched schools for the seventh grade, but only because my primary school stopped at sixth. I found myself torn away from a cozy library and from teachers who loved my attachment to books, and tossed into a concrete jungle where English classes were a big joke. I wasn’t outwardly devastated, but I’m sure a part of me felt a bit deflated. We read these awful books published by the school – to this day, I’m not sure why. Maybe because they wanted to give us the most bland material possible, devoid of any and all suggestions of the erotic or obscene.
There weren’t very many bookstores in Abu Dhabi, and I doubt there are very many now. Book Corner sat unnoticed in the mall, and I remember the dusty scent of it to this day. It was never crowded, never. While my friends spent money elsewhere, I would wander into Book Corner. If school wasn’t giving me good books, then I was going to find them myself.
What I found was the entire genre of historical romance. Book Corner sold these anthologies of historical romances – each book had four novels to them. They were huge, and I loved them. One thing that irked me was that the heroines were never like me. They were all very pretty and soft, and I wasn’t either of those things at that age. Softness, in particular, escaped me. I know I jokingly say that I have Beatrice’s sharp tongue, but it’s not exactly a joke. I’d find heroines like me later, but it drove me up the wall at the time.
As a teenager, I took a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker from my sister’s bookshelf. Yet another book that changed me. I developed a fondness for telling stories through letters, and an intense desire to seek out stories about women overcoming injustice. I wonder what injustices I was feeling that I needed these stories so much. I don’t re-read books very often, but I re-read The Color Purple. Nothing in the world gave me more peace than the very last line: “I think this is the youngest us ever felt. Amen.”
I also discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald around this time, and yet another passionate love affair began. This Side of Paradise ruined me, and nothing could fix it. The last line seeped into my bones. I know myself, but that is all. I felt the same as a teenager. I thought I knew myself, but that was all I knew. Everything else slipped through my fingertips.
For all my love affairs with writers, nothing could have prepared me for my love affair with William Shakespeare. My entire life turned upside down when I was handed RichardIII. School was finally prepping me for external exams, which meant that their own books wouldn’t do. Baby’s first Shakespeare, except I wasn’t a baby at all. I was in the tenth grade, and I should have been reading Shakespeare for ages before Richard III. For once, I had a teacher who cared. I can’t tell you how much of a difference that made. Yes, I was reading at home, but I needed someone to tell me that it was normal to love Shakespeare. It was weird, dusty, incomprehensible, but it became my life.
Richard became my life. I was an expert on the Wars of the Roses. Everybody teased me endlessly, but I didn’t care. Shakespeare and I had finally met, and it was explosive. I’d always been a very thoughtful, reflective person. Really, I was an oddball. I didn’t fit in at all, despite being an Arab girl living in an Arab country. I was always thinking, always scribbling things down in my journal. Shakespeare showed up and asked the same questions that plagued me. Oh, validation.
After Richard III came Henry IV, Part One. I’m pretty sure my school thought they were being clever, avoiding ‘raunchy’ plays like Romeo and Juliet. I was unsure – what if Richard III was meant to be my only love?
I was, of course, wrong. Henry IV, Part One quickly became my other love. Hal was everything to me, and I defended him in class with every breath I took. Try harder to understand. He’s struggling. He doesn’t know who he is, he only knows what people want him to be. Maybe I related to him then – I certainly relate to him now. As I grew older, Amory Blaine’s last words about knowing himself became less relatable. As I became more lost, I thought about Hal. He was lost, too.
We read Jane Eyre along with Henry IV, Part One. I remember my teacher secretly telling me about the symbolism of Mr. Rochester’s bed being on fire. She knew I wouldn’t blab. She knew I needed to learn how to pick out symbols and motifs, even if they were a bit scandalous. I didn’t find a kindred spirit in Jane, though I should have. I felt her loneliness keenly, I understood why she felt so odd. The boys teased me when we read Jane Eyre, telling me repeatedly that if Jane looked like anybody, it would be me. I couldn’t help but think about how often Jane was called plain. I forgot about Mr. Rochester comparing her to fae-folk, a compliment that would delight me now. All I heard was: you’re a plain oddball, just like Jane.
I couldn’t let anybody have the satisfaction of calling me plain, so I simply told them that I’d be happy to trade spots with Jane. At least she didn’t have to suffer idiots like them.
ACT V. ADULTHOOD
What am I doing here? I thought, sitting in an engineering class. I was a freshman, newly moved to California from the depths of the Middle East. What the hell was MATLAB? I didn’t care about programming.
It took time, but I eventually found a small used bookstore in my town. I picked up Pride and Prejudice, probably encouraged by all of the historical romance novels I had read as a teenager. Remember how badly I wanted to see someone like me in a historical romance novel? I finally recognized myself in Elizabeth Bennet. I should have seen pieces of myself in Jane Eyre, but I had been too preoccupied with protecting myself from jabbing remarks about the plainness we allegedly shared. As for Elizabeth, well, I know she’s a very popular character to relate to. I was sure that my connection to her was different, though. Maybe it was wishful thinking. I knew the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but it didn’t lose its magic. I remember sitting in a biomaterials class with the book open flat on my lap. I wasn’t listening to the professor, of course. What I was doing, however, was biting down on my hand, trying very hard not to vocalize the excitement I felt when Mr. Darcy professed his love to Elizabeth. And when she rejected him? I was ecstatic. Definitely not something I could express in a hot, crowded classroom.
There was one quarter where I desperately needed a single unit. Seminars at UC Davis were one unit each, and I remember going through the list. There was one about dinosaurs, another about witches. Near the bottom of the list was one called Shakespeare and Religion. I hadn’t read a play in ages. I had tried after Henry IV, Part One, but my own feelings of fear and inadequacy stopped me dead in my tracks. I signed up, remembering that I had an affinity for Shakespeare. I stubbornly refused to acknowledge just how much he meant to me.
So I walk into Shakespeare and Religion, and find out that we’re reading Antony and Cleopatra. And I felt like I had been hit by a train, but in a good way. In my engineering classes, I was silent. In this class, I spoke and spoke and spoke until I couldn’t speak anymore. Every week, we had to give a summary of a scene, and every week my group would beg me to do ours.
“It sounds so good when you talk about it,” I remember a girl saying. “Like it means something.”
Shakespeare meant everything. But the seminar came and went. I was still scared of reading outside of a classroom environment. Instead, I had my first taste of Hemingway. I read A Moveable Feast, and found myself deeply in love with simple writing. I went back to Roald Dahl, picking up his adult novel My Uncle Oswald. I loved that book to pieces. I used to read it during my electrical systems class, pushing it flat in my lap just like I had done with Pride and Prejudice. It was a huge challenge, trying to stifle my laughter. Once, on my way to school, I became so engrossed in it that I found myself on an idle, empty bus on campus. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there, just reading. I hadn’t noticed any activity around me, any movement. Nothing. Just Shereen and another one of her books.
I started taking summer classes, just so I could get everything done in time. With every engineering class, I would take something “fun.” I told everyone it was for balance, but I was desperate not to lose what little spark I had left. Oh, I was so miserable in my major classes. Literally anything else brought me to life – religious studies, Ancient Roman history, you name it. I took comparative literature one summer, despite being warned against it.
That was the first time I read Crime and Punishment. That novel took over my life, and I felt it become apart of me. Every book I’ve ever loved is somewhere inside of me. They make up my bones, my vessels. It’s never instantaneous – when I read Crime and Punishment, I felt it sink into my being when Raskolnikov asked his mother if she’d still love him even if he had done something bad. I was shaken when she told him she would, she always would. Tears pricked my eyes right in the middle of a coffee shop. I chastised myself quickly – I don’t get choked up in public (as a general rule), and they were just words.
We also read Faust in that class, and I was reminded of how much I loved plays. Mephistopheles reminded me of Richard, in a way. Scheming, manipulative, downright hilarious. One day, while leaving my comparative literature class, I saw a board of flyers advertising summer abroad programs. One of them was called Shakespeare – Live! I looked at it very doubtfully. Me? In London? Studying Shakespeare? Standing where he once stood, acting like I knew what I was talking about?
The fine print talked about a scholarship, so I decided I would try to go for that. I wrote a short, sharp piece about what Shakespeare meant to me. It was very dry, definitely not an emotional mess like this post is coming out to be. But I got the scholarship. I went to London. I read Henry V for the first time, and I saw Hal again. It felt like coming home, even if I was in the middle of a brand new place. Standing in the Globe, I felt like myself. I’m always such a mess of doubts, of worries and hangups. Everything was quiet that summer in 2012. I was just a girl who loved Shakespeare and, strangely, I felt loved right back.
After that, nothing. I felt like Persephone, leaving an open field of flowers and finding myself in the Underworld. But she took command of that situation, so I did the same. I got my Bachelor’s degree, I moved on to a Master’s program. Everything would be okay, I thought, as long as I had a bookshelf to come home to.
But, of course, I got frustrated. I sat down in an undergraduate Shakespeare class two years ago and refused to budge. The professor didn’t know what to do with me, at first. He had a class of sleepy kids, most of them jocks, and me, in the front, squirming in my seat over Henry V. We’d sit on the floor outside of the classroom and talk about Shakespeare’s women. I am immediately anxious when talking to fellow scientists, but I had no problem sharing all of my thoughts with this old man, even if he did have decades of Shakespeare under his belt. When that class ended, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I went home, and made a decision.
I was going to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, because I loved him and I knew I would do anything to understand his stories. My small studio apartment began to fill with plays. I drag my Henry V poster with me wherever I go, but it belonged in that studio more than anywhere else. I belonged there too, reading Shakespeare by the light of my pink salt lamp.
My whole life, reading has brought me peace. It has helped me answer questions about myself. And while I was doing all this reading, I was out making friends, surrounding myself with trustworthy people. And I loved being around my friends as much as I loved reading. A problem arose, though. I wanted to be a social butterfly, and I wanted to quit with the books altogether. And, it may shock you to read this, but this happened while I was trying to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I was close to graduating, and I felt instability creep up on me. I was angry at myself for sitting in my bed and reading. What had books ever done for me other than make me sad and fill me with longing for a different life? When will you get your head out of your books and daydreams and finally live? I wrote in my journal.
My therapist tapped her pen across her notebook and regarded me thoughtfully. I was sitting across from her, wringing my hands together and trying not to cry. I felt stupid, having told her about my book-related dilemma, but it had been on my mind. She’d interrupted me with questions like, “Do you relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, without hesitation.
Now, she was looking at me as I tried not to dissolve in her office.
“If all of this made you an outcast as a child, why didn’t you just conform?”
I had no idea what to say, so I said, “It…was the books.”
That didn’t make any sense, obviously. But I tried to explain. I couldn’t leave the books behind. The stories, the characters, they were everything to me. They had made me feel alive in a way I couldn’t describe. How could I leave them? And my favorite characters had never conformed. Books taught me that it wasn’t right, betraying yourself like that.
And my dilemma wasn’t their fault, really. There were other things that were preventing me from feeling completely free. I just chose to blame books because a book had been in my hand when I’d reached my breaking point.
“You know,” my therapist said, “you really light up when you talk about Shakespeare. I think you need it in your life.”
“I know,” I said, feeling broken up about it. “Why couldn’t I have a normal hobby? Why does it have to be this?”
You’re rolling your eyes now, I’m sure. I know I’m not the only bookworm in the world. But I live and work among scientist and engineers. It’s so hard to find people like me, people who value emotion over logic and words over equations. There are people out there, I’ve found, who actually love engineering.
“I’d love engineering if…I wish I were bad at it,” I said desperately. “Bad at Shakespeare, bad at reading books.”
She looked at me pointedly.
“No, I don’t,” I admitted, crumpling under her knowing gaze.
I had to learn how to let myself love books again. I never stopped loving them, obviously. I just got angry at myself every time I spent an evening in with one in my hand. The only solution was to keep reading.
Now, as I apply frantically for jobs, I fill my spare hours with reading. The genre? Historical romance, of course.
As usual, I have absolutely no business showing my face around here. I was hoping to have been done with Pericles by now – heck, I should be done with Henry VIII by now. It’s just that I’ve been going through a rough patch, and I’ve been struggling to keep my spark alive. Shakespeare has been playing a role in saving me, in a sense. I was too gloomy to care about finishing Pericles, but I eventually picked it up a week or two into my sad spell and, for the first time since the beginning of this year, I felt serene.
“Every time you’re down, I always end up telling you to bring more Shakespeare into your life,” my best friend (who is decidedly not a Shakespearean) said over text. “It’s what you need.”
I have to say that I’m feeling very hesitant about writing this post. This is a blog about Shakespeare, and here I am trying to write something personal. And I’m always afraid that I’ll just sound insufferable if I talk about myself, and especially if I try to discuss my very first world problems. But, hey, at least I’m self-aware, right?
I went to a Shakespeare reading at the library a couple of weeks ago, and it was terrible. My subpar experience combined with the fact that I’m going through some kind of weird quarter life existential crisis left me sniffling pathetically in my car after I had left the library. Sadness, of course, turned into annoyance. I was annoyed that a silly experience could take away my enjoyment for Shakespeare. And, of course, annoyance turned into a stubborn determination to never let anybody or anything ruin Shakespeare for me ever again.
To say that I love Shakespeare is an understatement. I tried to describe just how much in my last post of 2016, a post I made before embarking on this adventure of mine. I remember the first time I read Shakespeare so vividly. “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” is not an exciting first line, especially since I hadn’t read Henry VI. But I kept reading because, well, I had to. I’m nothing if not a total teacher’s pet. “But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty to strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” Now that is a set of lines so intriguing that I saw the scene laid out in my mind, crystal clear. And by the time Richard declared his dedication to villainy, I was beyond hooked. Everybody knew. My father, who would drive me home every afternoon, would jokingly ask, “And how is Richard today?” At school, I was teased to no end. But, honestly, it didn’t matter. Shakespeare was something that was mine, and mine alone. Years later, when Richard III’s body was discovered under a parking lot, I woke up to multiple texts and Facebook notifications. When I say that I am everybody’s Shakespeare friend, I am not exaggerating.
After Richard, my dramatic teenage self was sure that I would never love a play with such intensity ever again. Henry IV, Part One was the Shakespeare play chosen by my school. You may be wondering what kind of nonsensical school I attended, given that I wasn’t being assigned Hamlet or Macbeth. It’s easily explained: I went to school in the United Arab Emirates, and what my school was doing was choosing the plays that they believed to be the most tame. Discussions about sexuality and homoerotic subtext had no place in our classrooms, and so the least offensive plays were chosen. So we hopped from Richard III to Henry IV, Part One. And that was how I found myself face to face (face to text?) with Hal – and you all know how I feel about Hal.
I remember a boy asking me who my favorite character was. I was very quick to answer that it was Hal – of course it was Hal. He rolled his eyes and said, “Typical girl. Your favorite would be the knight in shining armor.” I didn’t bother explaining that I loved Hal for his human messiness, that I adored the fact that he was a walking disaster, struggling to carry the weight of his duty and desperately searching for a way to reconcile his personality with his birthright. To this day, I find myself faced with professors who simply refuse to see Hal as anything other than a monster. Maybe I would feel the same if I hadn’t spent all of my lonely hours trying to figure Hal out. Lonely hours turned into years, to be honest. In 2012, I was walking across the Millennium Bridge in London, having just left a performance of Henry V at the Globe. My friend, who I have since lost touch with, walked alongside me.
“You really have Henry all figured out?” she asked, unconvinced.
“I do,” I replied immediately, confidently. “I know who he is. I think I’ve always known his story would turn out like this.”
I wasn’t quite sure about my own story, though. I was just a kid back then, clinging very desperately onto the feelings of elation that Shakespeare gave me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 2010, when I was applying to universities, I remember longingly looking at English under the list of majors. “Well, if you love it so much, what was stopping you?” you ask, rolling your eyes at the melodramatic tone of this post. What was stopping me was my culture. To Arabs, success comes with an engineering degree or a medical degree. English? English was for failures. My only other bookish friend was stubborn enough to major in it anyway, and I still admire that to this day. I chose biomedical engineering, and I was good at it. I’m still good at it.
Sometimes (I know how this is going to sound) I wish I were only scientifically inclined. Yes, I know, boo-hoo. How terrible it must be to be so well-rounded. It’s a non-issue, I know, and a really stupid thing to think, but I just cannot explain how difficult it was for me to throw myself into engineering when Shakespeare was being taught right across the hall. And when I did sign up to take Shakespeare classes “for fun,” I found that I never heard the siren call of engineering from across the way. There was no siren call. The fact that I was so happy in English classes and so unhappy in my other classes meant I was constantly on the phone with my parents, crying. They were vehemently against a change in major, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. And it wasn’t just them: I simply cannot abandon something once I’ve started it. It’s akin to failure to me.
But things just kept getting worse, and the only solution was Shakespeare. I didn’t ask to participate in the Shakespeare summer abroad program in London. I always ask permission, but this time, I just told my parents I was doing it. I wrote an essay about what Shakespeare meant to me and landed a scholarship that covered my airfare. And I went, and I was so incredibly happy. I hopped out of bed every day, ready to read and talk and stand in the same city where Shakespeare once stood. And when I eventually flew back to California, as I was unpacking all of my treasures from my adventure, I burst into tears. I asked my mother, “Why did you let me go?”
Engineering has never called to me, but Shakespeare always has and always will. I lived out an alternate existence that summer in 2012, and going back to my normal life was devastating.
But back to the Shakespeare group that I went to earlier this month. I took my love for Shakespeare with me, ready to share it with everybody. But most of my contributions were swiftly dismissed and, well, everybody was old. So not only am I an engineer who loves Shakespeare, I am a young engineer who loves Shakespeare.
And I feel alone. There is nothing I want more than to share my passion with everyone I meet – with the entire world, really. But my mother once told me that it’s a boring hobby that nobody understands. She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but her words caused me to button up about Shakespeare immediately and indefinitely. I feel like I can’t talk about it in my real life. And when I looked for people who might feel the same way as me, I was dismissed and made to feel like a silly little girl.
I suppose there’s no real end to this story. Luckily, because I am who I am, nothing anyone says or does will change how much I love Shakespeare. I often daydream about using my degree to make a bunch of money, and then using that money to pay to get my PhD in Shakespearean studies. In my daydreams, I am always accepted into these programs, though I do know that probably wouldn’t be the case in real life. But maybe I’ll try one day. In an ideal world, an incredibly influential Shakespearean scholar would read this and feel for me enough to become my mentor. In reality, I will probably have to navigate the mysterious world of Shakespeare by myself until I meet a kindred spirit, or until I am brave enough to leave the comfort and security of my current profession. I would love to teach Shakespeare. I know I’m not the only 25 year old Shakespeare nerd in the world – I just wish I knew how to make sure that nobody my age is lonely in their love for these often confusing but oh-so-fulfilling Elizabethan plays. I just wish I knew where to go, where to find comfort. Until then, I’ll be reading plays by the soft pink light of my salt lamp and dumping my thoughts into the void, hoping that someone will find them useful.
I feel like this post is entirely pointless, but I have to say that it was very therapeutic to write out. I shouldn’t call it pointless, though, because there’s a minuscule chance that someone in the world needs to read these words. There’s a microscopic chance that I’ll help people feel less alone, and that’s why I write.
Anyway! Enough of my melodramatic ramblings. My post on Pericles will come soon, and then I’ll only have two plays left. Then I’ll be presented with the daunting task of ranking all of the plays, and I’m agonizing over my list already. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – Pericles first, three thousand word essays on what the best plays are later.