At that time, Egypt was digging the Suez Canal (the canal that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean). When they started digging, the workers were faced with a stampede of ferocious rats coming from all over the city eating supplies, destroying machinery, and spreading diseases. The management tried all kinds of rat poisons and traps but nothing worked. The rats kept multiplying, getting bigger, fatter, and more aggressive. The government announced that the whole project was about to fail and would soon be abandoned.
Our young Sakakini read the newspaper and a light bulb went on! Why not use cats to eat the rats? Can you imagine how people received his idea? He was made fun of, ridiculed and belittled: Don’t you think they have cats over there? Do you think no body tried that already? It is so obvious isn’t it... you're no genius!
Sakakini did not listen to the nay Sayers, he got cages, gathered stray cats from the streets of Cairo, and shipped them to the construction site in Suez. There, he released the cats and within 24 hours, the site was cleared. The digging was soon resumed and the news reached the khedive Ismail, the ruler of Egypt at the time. He was so impressed that he appointed young Sakakini as his personal adviser. Sakakini was a creative adviser and proved wise in many subsequent decisions. Soon enough, he was granted a mansion in a district that still carries his family's name more than a 100 years later.
Unlike young Sakakini, I have always been afraid to be different…
I feared that being myself, expressing my unconventional opinions, or taking a stand for what I believe in would prevent me from “fitting in,” from being part of the tribe, from belonging.
I grew up in my grandmother’s house, a big family home with doors always open to welcome everybody. I was this little girl sitting in the corner listening to grown-ups' stories… women who came to my grandmother for advice, counsel, and support…
My grandmother’s kitchen was constantly brimming with aromas and flavors. A big pot was continuously simmering preparing the most delicious lunch for any potential guest, neighbour, friend, or just for the mailman and the newspaper guy around the corner. I enjoyed trips with my aunt to the old spice souks stocking on spices, herbs, and teas… My grandmother had a recipe for every ailment and it worked every time. I became fascinated with women's stories and enchanted by the magic of those herbs and spices. “When I’ll grow up, I announced, I’ll be a story catcher, listening to people’s stories, giving them support, and sharing wisdom and healing foods like grandma's.” But, this is not a profession, I was told!
So, I stopped dreaming!
At school, I loved my creative writing class. In my eccentric brain, neurons are constantly firing in all directions generating uncontrollable stream of ideas, opinions, stories, and visuals begging to be expressed and shared. But, for some reason, my teacher did not seem to like my writing, “Writing is not your strength,” she advised, “ stick to science, this is what you’re good at.”
So, I stopped writing.
I then shifted to another passion, drawing and visual art. I enjoyed expressing emotions and feelings through colors, forms, and shapes. My father and my brother are talented artists, you could mistaken their drawings for photographs. But, my art is different, I drew emotions and human feelings… I drew experiences and build imaginative cosmos. So, when I declared that I wanted to be an artist, I was met with a definitive, “No way! ‘You’re not good at art!” They advised me in the most friendly way to “stick to science, this is what you’re good at!”
And, I stopped drawing!
When I graduated high school, I joined pharmacy. I was always good at science, so I’ve been told. But, this wasn’t my reason. Deep inside, I wanted to learn about those magical herbs I left back in my grandmother’s kitchen, I wanted to be an agent in people healing and relief like she was.
Unfortunately, the way herbs and remedies are taught in pharmacy stripped them from their magic, from their soul and reduced them to mere chemical formulas and Latin names. When I tried to express this humble opinion and maybe carve some path for change, no one understood what I was talking about.
And, again, I stopped! I remained part of the system.
I graduated top of my class and was hired as a teaching assistant in the faculty. I loved my work. I love biochemistry, I love teaching and lab experiments… but, there was always something missing, some part of me I left behind in my grandmother’s house, some part of me that I left when I abandoned the stories, the kitchen apothecary, my journals, and my sketchbooks.
But, I was now too busy climbing the ladder of academia and finishing my master degree in pharmacy. I needed to fit in… to be accepted… to remain part of the system.
Ironically, the more I struggled to fit in, the less I felt that I belonged.
Brené Brown teaches, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
When we settle into our ordinary life, we’re always sent signs… directions for the path, for the next step in the journey we are meant to embark on. Joseph Campbell calls it, “Call for Adventure”… This call starts subtle, like those unsettling feelings I had, the feelings that I am abandoning essential parts of who I am in a futile attempt to fit in… But, I did not listen, I did not heed the subtle warnings… So, they had to become louder and uglier.
As I finished my research and was ready to present my thesis, my faculty advisor refused to accept it unless I end my maternal leave and come back to work. With two toddlers at hand, I couldn’t do that. So, I was forced to submit my resignation in order for me to complete and receive my master degree. I cried day and night. I felt oppressed and unjustly treated… My years of hard work and my dream of becoming a university professor were shattered overnight. But, wait a minute… were those ‘my’ dreams? This “call” forced me to stop for a moment and reconsider my path. Was it really my path or was it the path that everyone believed was the best for me?
Leaving academia gave me the chance to dig into those passions I have abandoned years ago. I studied nutrition, natural health, spirituality and theology; and I loved every step along the way. I ended up with a degree in nutrition, a PhD in Natural Health, and a Master in Pastoral studies. I wrote books that I would have never written if I was still following a path that was not meant for me.
Brené Brown's words made so much sense now, “because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” I had to learn to accept myself, my true authentic self. Like young Sakakini, I had to learn not to fear being different. I had to learn that it is ok to “stand alone in the wilderness” at times or even most of the times. I had to learn to trust myself for me to be able to trust others.
Striving for belonging is a natural human instinct. We all need to belong. It is a tough, and at times scary, quest that requires us to keep “Braving the Wilderness.” “True belonging, Brené says, is not something you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart.”