To Feel Seen, and Smiled At

I fear what other people may be thinking of me. I am almost certain that so too, do you. It is in our nature, in our design, to want to seek acceptance and approval from people: from authority figures, from people we would like to befriend. And we want to feel, on some deep psychological level, safe and sound, truly at home, and not in any way rejected or attacked; we want to feel like we belong. 

Deeper than this, we do not merely seek to be ‘tolerated’, nor even merely ‘accepted’. But appreciated, celebrated. We seek true validation. And nobody at all really wants to feel cast out; alienated.

We tend to look for validation specifically from people whom we perceive to have power. Professional, or social. Maybe they have certain traits that we may, ourselves, desire. For one reason or another, we find ourselves trusting them, as well as their judgements.

 

From the very first days of our existences outside of the womb, what we know to first seek is a validating type of eye contact: to feel seen, really seen, and to feel loved for being. A look, and a smile. A “welcome to the world. You are welcome here, truly.

 

“I see you, and I love you.”

 

And the ways in which we are mirrored back: these little messages continually tell us who we are. This is especially critical in the first seven years of our lives, for this is when the cruxes of our personalities are formed, [what ought to be] a delicate to-and-fro of “this is me,” and, “yes, this is you”. And it is the job of a child’s caregivers to continually make the child feel seen, and known, held, praised, and encouraged.

Such instinctual psychological desires do not just up and leave us, after these particular definitive years of ours, though; they are here with us, throughout our lives. At school, within our peer groups, at work — we find ourselves forever in pursuit of the eye-and-smile thing.

“You are truly seen,” it tells us. “And truly appreciated.” 

Relax. Without any sort of need to impress or overcompensate. Nor to always come across as being especially funny, or smart, or anything else. Just as you are: you are worthy of love.

But what if, whether in infancy or at some crucial point thereafter, we did not feel seen (i.e. seen in truth, and not merely via the masks we may have learnt to wear, in order to attempt to simulate that essential validating experience we so sought) and what if we did not feel smiled-at, appreciated, cherished?

One of my little cousins, for example, is really rather awesome. She likes to write her own songs, uses gifted makeup sets so as to paint on paper, plays football competitively. She is a gorgeous little creature (Masha Allah) and, as aforesaid, I think she is awesome. But she has all these strong doubts about herself. Thinks herself to be, among other things, ‘inadequate’ as a girl.

“I don’t want to be ‘unique’. Unique means weird.

“Well, I think it means singular and extraordinary!”

Cole Mackenzie and Anne, Anne with an E

Sometimes she finds she is excluded from certain little friendship groups. On account of being who and how she is, apparently. When I try to remind her of the beauty of this ‘who and how she is’, she is able to remember the good of herself momentarily, but then forgets, in the faces of those strong oppositional forces.

How difficult it is to build a building: brick-by-brick. How comparatively easy it is to knock the entire thing down. 

When one feels seen, yet not at all smiled at: this can prove to be a rather terrifying ordeal indeed. Put under a spotlight, feeling mortified and exposed, prodded and gawked at. Like you are a lab rat, some strange creature. Undeserving. Not belonging; social death.

Or, of course, on the flip-side, one may find oneself feeling smiled at, and yet, not truly seen. When one hides the truths of oneself, defensively, for acceptance, maybe; for fear of not being approved of. The smiles themselves: we may find that they do not fulfil. They can feel rather inauthentic… because it is not truly you that is being smiled at, is it?

Finally, rather tragically, one may come to find oneself in a state of feeling neither seen, nor smiled at. Whereby one’s truths are hidden, out of fear of not being accepted by others. Whereby masks are not worn, either. It is like such people have come to accept utter defeat; are now shrouded in a state of feeling completely societally rejected, and subsequently quite hopeless, fearing always floating, never belonging. But I think they are still there, somewhere. Our true/potential selves do not simply die while we ourselves remain alive: they can get unfavourably covered up for a while, sure. Or neglected, or hindered. But they are never lost. And, in due time, and with the love and support of the right people for us, oh how we find we can grow! 

Children (and indeed we, us over-aged children) need to be reminded, time and time again, of who we are, from the perspective of those who truly love us [us. Not whom they want us to be!] and whom we, in return, also love. That ‘to-and-fro’ thing, again. And, over and over again. Because, (when it concerns qualities that are not distinctively morally wrong) there are always at least two ways of looking at things.

“Too quiet”, for instance, can be exchanged for “contemplative”: a brilliant quality to have, actually. “Weird” can be swapped for “spirited”. “Shy” can be rephrased as “endearing”.

And, on matters concerning physical appearance, no baby is born feeling that he or she is “ugly”. But often, all it takes for a child to suddenly feel bad about one or more of their qualities is… a single comment.

“Different isn’t bad. It’s just not the same.

— Anne with an E

From back when I had been the same age as the aforementioned cousin of mine, I remember how much the tiniest comments would affect me. For example, an aunt of mine had taught me to think that having ‘baby hairs’ was a bad thing. So, at home, I tried exceedingly hard to scrub it all off. But now I know that many people consider these baby hairs to be a positive and desirable thing to have. A similar occurrence, concerning my slightly-upturned nose. A relative of mine teased me about it, calling it a “pig nose”. So I would exert myself to push my nose downwards, in the hope that it would become permanently like this, someday. But, now I know that many consider upturned noses to be “cute”, actually.

A final example, concerning the colour of my skin. As a very young child, my skin had been very fair. And, as a result of some deeply colourist South Asian standards, I had been complimented for this, quite a lot. An aunt of mine even made jokes about wanting to swap her own daughter for me, since I had been fairer than my cousin.

[You know, it is not uncommon for people to comment, as soon as a child is born, on the colour of his or her skin: on how (apparently, consequently) ‘pretty’ or ‘ugly’ the baby is, or will turn out to be. And these attitudes are quite disgusting.]

Anyway, I did not care much for the fact that my skin colour had been granted so much value in the eyes of certain relatives of mine. I liked to play outside in the sun; let my skin turn browner. A particular relative of mine started to insult me, calling me “dirt-coloured”, and treating me differently. But, I did not care. I told her that she, by contrast, was fair, just like bacteria, and just like the bottom of my feet.

A bit savage, I know. But I figured I did not need nor want the approval and acceptance of a person who wanted to determine the value of a child by how fair or dark their skin was. This was not a value that I had aspired towards: so why should the disapproval of someone with such a value have mattered, to me? I guess I chose to give this particular person less power in my eyes. Who was she, to determine any ‘truths’ about me, anyway?

No, I did not feel like I ‘belonged’, with a person like her. But, nor did I want to: the apparent criteria that would have been necessary for this were simply not worth it!

Personality-based features (again, when they are not rooted in immorality), and appearance-based ones: one may find that there are always different perspectives that one can choose to have, on any given thing. Positive, or neutral, or bad. Being tall: desirable to some; a neutral thing to be, for others. And an awful thing to be, in the perspectives of some. Being bookish: desirable, neutral, or terrible.

See, on the level of people, there are as many distinctive ‘truths’ as there are pairs of eyes! And, different eyes [can choose to] see different ‘truths’, about the very same thing: whether this be concerning the entirety of a person, or about certain isolated features of theirs. Brown skin. Or ginger hair. Freckles, chubby cheeks, mono-lid eyes. They can be seen, and are seen, by different groups of people, as being good, or neutral, or ‘bad‘. Now which group, of the three, would it be best for you to agree with, when it comes to you and your attributes?

You might find you are “too religious,” for some. Perfectly so, for others. “Too boisterous,” for some. Brilliantly so, for others. “Too into […] stamp-collecting [?],” for some. And splendidly so, for others. And there will always, always, always be some people on this Earth who will deeply approve of you, as well as some people who will really not. 

The ones who will really see you, and therefore love you… I hope they are the friends that you will have, through life. I hope they know to honour you, and you, them. And your respective colours. And how the jigsaw pieces might fit together. I hope the soil nurtures your growth and theirs, really and truly.

Anyway, what certain people say, and the ‘standards’ that are decided as a result of these opinions: these are not the ‘gatekeepers’ of Truth. Even when it comes to things like beauty standards: do you not see how these fashions ebb and flow, and change, and what they are, altogether, in light of? Quite frivolous, for the most part. Sometimes fleeting, often unsubstantial.

If you ever find yourself having been insulted for a trait or feature that you may have, I challenge you to try to immediately remind yourself that “there is another way of looking at this“. Whatever they may be saying, there is another thing that can be said, regarding the very same thing: a more positive outlook. Now, just what could this be?

Who had taught you to think the bad things you might think of yourself, currently? And, why should they have the authority to be able to make such a decision, concerning you? Why should you have to believe them?

I promise you: where there is a choice to see beauty, and when you then choose to see it, beauty grows. In you, and in others.

You are a brilliant pear tree; why should I complain about your ‘failure’ to produce apples? You are a gorgeous wintry sun; who am I to expect, from you, heat? Or, you are a sunflower. Why ought I to be disappointed to find that your petals are not red and pleated?

Be whom you are, my friend. And bloom from whom you are. You will have your ‘right’ ones who notice and appreciate; you will have your ‘not-so-right’ ones who find they cannot do so. And this is okay, for you are you, and they are they. There is no need to meet everybody’s seeming ‘expectations’ of you: no, for you may just completely lose yourself in the process.

We all, from the places of our very cores, seek to be smiled at, after being seen. And, there is no substitute for real (love-based) connections, which are rooted in the very aforesaid phenomenon. Some people might seek seen-ness and smiles from others, through avenues such as fame. But no, no. Mere popularity is no substitute for the real stuff: it is no substitute at all.

 

Just whose validation is it that you seek, and why? And whose disapproval do you fear so much, and why? 

 

Now, if you are able to do so, dear friend, I encourage you to look into a mirror: any mirror. And right into your own eyes. It might feel quite strange and intense at first, but… be sure to soften your gaze a little. There. I hope you feel seen now. And now, smile. A most sincere and welcoming smile. Feel seen, and in a most accepting, appreciative, supportive way. Even if some of the people around you are unable to do the same: herein might just lie the first step. Being on one’s own side, while standing on the other side of the mirror. And then, simply choosing to focus on what is good and true. 

“It’s not what the world holds for you.

It’s what you bring to it.”

— Anne with an E

Somehow, one must try to root oneself in soil that will help one to grow; to see others, too, and to smile upon their existences, also. To be with people who love you; to love them right back. To feel connected; to want to always be able to look into their eyes; to miss their smiles when they are not there. To discover more about them and their lives; more things to smile for, and to support.

To really feel seen, and to also sincerely feel smiled at. Is this not the basis of all human love? 

And one must give out this willingness to try to understand, and to appreciate, others, with the sincere hope that you, too are deserving of such treatment. Whether this is granted to you from the hearts of many, or solely from the hearts of a few. 

The greatest thing one can aspire to in life is to love, and to then be loved, too. 

 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Essences Vs. Appearances

Who are you? No, I mean, who are you really? Are you the labels that may, over the years, have been ascribed to you – first by your environment, and then, also by you?

When are you most ‘real’? And who knows the ‘real you’ best?

Are you the ‘realest you’ when you are at home, alone, when the rest of the world seems to have fallen asleep? Are you whom the people you live with, insist that you are? Or, do the ones you actively choose to love, and to maintain relationships with – your closest friends, for example – are they the ones who know ‘you’ best?

The ‘true’ ‘you’. By definition: the version of ‘you’ that is in accordance with fact, with reality. But, the thing is, we each perceive ‘reality’ through our own eyes, processed via our own individual minds. We are all, for various reasons, in our own unique ways, crucially unreliable perceivers and narrators.

In a world that does not (in theory) consider God, we must concede to the fact that all realities are subjectively determined. Then, the most popular, the most popularly recurring, versions of reality are decided as being ‘truth’. The sky is ‘blue’. But some cannot see the colour ‘blue’. It does not exist for them; they might instead insist that the sky is always grey. But we take the most popular view – that which tells us that the sky is blue – and we take this as being ‘true’ [points for rhyming?]

Likewise, we say that people with abnormal psychological conditions – say, those who are prone to seeing what we term as being ‘hallucinations’ – as being detached from ‘reality’. But, see, this is a ‘reality’ that is intersubjectively decided, an implicitly democratised ‘truth’.

What if things had been different, then? What if the world had been populated mostly by people who could not see ‘blue’, and who insisted that the sky is perpetually grey, even on cloudless days? What if there had been seven billion of these grey-for-blue-seers, and only one person who saw the sky as being ‘blue’? Would the latter’s view be true, or would this person become abnormal, in our eyes, as a result of circumstance? Maybe we would come to say that he suffers from some sort of adverse ophthalmological condition.

Mutatis mutandis for the example with the psychological abnormality: what if we all started seeing ‘hallucinations’, all except for one person? Statistically, this one person would become the abnormality. Reality, when God is not considered, is simply that which most of us see, and which we can implicitly, strongly, collectively agree on.

So, back to truths about people: who knows ‘you’ [best]? Is the ‘realest’ version of you the one that the majority of people who know you are known to tell and retell? In a world that does not consider God, there is no other way to arrive at a truth. There are only human eyes, human minds, human perception (which are, by nature, limited, prone to error, etc.) – and there are only, from these, a series of popularly-decided convictions.

Where ‘truths’ are only decided and determined by the people, there is allowed much room for biases – a whole plethora of them, actually. A person’s vices may be seen as being virtues, as a simple result of the environment they situationally find themselves in, and vice versa for vices with virtues. You may find your ‘likability’, among other things, shifting drastically, based on changes in the people you find yourself surrounded by.

And if we say that people are the most ‘real’ when they are alone… well, this necessitates our looking-over-the-fact that we are who we are in relation to other people. Humankind: an intrinsically social, eusocial, species. Some people are more extroverted than others, though. Some people rely more on others, for their sense of self-identity. And our personalities are all made up of varying personas – which emerge and hide and develop in light of (social) circumstance. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

[It is in our nature to care about what others think ⁠— in particular, we will naturally seek validation and approval from those whom we love and respect, and from those whom we want to love and respect us. This is okay. But we cannot lose sight of the objective… that is, Objectivity. We must care about things like our place in society, and about our reputations and such, in decent measure. But once we have what is necessary, from this, I think we need to step back and remember how crucial moderation and balances are…]

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…”

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It

All these facts, together, do beg some highly pressing questions, for us. Is there an ‘essence’ of truth, to any of us: one that is undeniable, one that does not change based on all such demographic considerations? We do all find ourselves changing much, over time, yes, but at any given moment, is there some sort of a solid and discoverable ‘truth’ to us? Might it be a thing of averages – between everything you say about yourself, combined with what your loved ones may say, and with a pinch of what those who might dislike you say of you?

We each see others through ourselves. We are known to be unfair perceivers and judges; to be given to projecting; to be given to irrationality, and to heightened emotions that may ‘warp’ our views of people. [Well, is there even an objective ‘truth’ there, to warp, to begin with?!]

Objectivity fails to be a reality, where one does not consider God. God’s view is the only objective one; holistic, just, all-knowing. So the ultimate ‘truth’ of you is whom God knows you to be. And as He tells us, He judges us by our intentions – that which is inward and private, the stuff of the heart. It matters not, to God, if you are a prince, or if you are a pauper. These are all things that concern appearances, in the grander scheme of things. It does not matter how many people approve of you, nor the opposite: these are all mere appearance-based considerations. God knows your essence, though, even if every other man alive rejects the things that are objectively true, of you. And you certainly have much control over who you are: you regulate your thoughts, generate intentions, allow them to translate into behaviour.

On an exclusively human level, maybe it is true that the closest one can get to the ‘truth’ of oneself is by reviewing what one does. “You are what you repeatedly do”. Of course, even these considerations can be tainted by things like illnesses, which can hinder the ability you have, with which to do certain things. Ultimately, your intentions are what count the most.

God knows who you are: what you have begun with, the decisions you have made, in light of it all. You are the state of your heart, and this state is determined by factors that concern intentionality: decision-making, your pursuits of virtuous activities, what you do, and why. 

God’s Truths are the only real ones – even if every person alive comes to disagree with them. So why chase the positive regards of fellow men in such ways? Just like you, you see, they are all biased, flawed, and altogether unreliable, when it comes to matters of Truth.

So trust your Creator; fear and serve Him, and Him alone. His Word is objectively True, immortal, while the words of men are finite, limited, attempts at truth… attempted by all these minds that each find themselves affected by various half-truths, in all of these similar time-worn ways.

Also: I think it is very important for us to pay attention to whom we are with, when we feel our best – not necessarily the most euphoric, all the time, but the most unified, comfortable in ourselves. We need not feel anxious about filtering ourselves too much, before them, and nor are we overly anxious about impressing them. They just feel like… home, somehow. They care for us, and for our growth. The best of our companions are the ones who bring out the best in us; in our character, and on a spiritual level, first and foremost. You may look into their eyes, and see the best of you, reflected back.

These people are the ones that, I think, are most worth holding onto, most worth deeply investing our time and energy into our relationships with. 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Boxes and Labels

Social ideas pertaining to identity and self-definition are constantly changing. Gender, class, religion, age and ethnicity are said to form the core of one’s personality… or, rather, how we can concisely define ourselves when we do not have enough time to explain what our personal views, experiences and ideas might be, and, likewise, how others can place us into easy boxes when they are too lazy or strapped for time to explore the deeper intricacies of who we are. The nature of human identity is arguably one of the most complex and fluid concepts that social scientists (among others) are forced to grapple with constantly; limiting the definition of one’s qualities and traits to ethnic categories on application forms is both futile and regressive; the ‘ethnicity’ section of such forms is an insult to people’s individualities, and their individual assets. “The times”, as Bob Dylan put it, “they are a-changin’”, and it now feels like the right time to open up an extensive debate about the relevance of ethnic labelling in the modern world.

I must admit, however, that I am no stranger to the intrinsic human urge to feel like I belong to a group, (or, to several). I am a member of numerous friendship groups and online ‘fandoms’, as well as worldwide communities – from the global Marvel Comics fandom to the nearly 2-billion-strong international Muslim community. Although I belong to these various groups, I still see myself as a unique individual; my personality cannot fully be captured by simple strings of words, or by lazy labels like “Muslim”, “teenager” or “Bengali”, let alone by an inane blanket label like “black”, “white”, or “brown”.

Human conversational tendencies are a peculiar thing, especially in first-time conversations, and those centred on ‘small talk’ (which is an intrinsically detestable thing, if you ask me). In such situations, people tend to drift towards discussing trivial matters like the weather, or Trumpian politics, or ethnicity. Revealing one’s ethnicity, from my experience, tends to give rise to responses of fascination, bewilderment, or downright confusion.

 

Really? You’re Bengali? Oh, so you’re basically Indian, right?”

“No way! I thought you were Moroccan. You’re too pretty to be a Bengali”

“Oh, wow. So do you eat rice and curry everyday?”

“Will you have to get an arranged marriage?”

 

The obsession with ethnicity seems strange when compared to other factors such as social class. Adults nowadays are unlikely to bring up age or social class as a topic of initial conversation (so as to instantly assign labels and stereotypes to people they barely even know) and yet the question of ethnicity somehow retains its place at the tips of our tongues. Similarly, although young people are unlikely to include their social class or political beliefs in short social media biographies, they are willing to embellish said ‘bios’ with flag Emojis and statements of ethnic pride. This is, by no means, a bad thing, however placing excessive importance on the differences between ethnic groups, as opposed to the innumerable similarities we share with every other human being, places pressure on people to perceive members of other groups as strange, or at least, distant from them. It is this very concept that provides the perfect breeding ground for racism, as well as ideas surrounding ethnic superiority and inferiority.

Nobody here in London can claim to be an authentic, uncontaminated representative of a singular race. In fact, nobody in the world can make this claim. Several large-scale genealogy experiments and projects have proven, time and time again, that humans have been migrating from place to place for millennia- since we first came about. Cultural heritage, like race, is an illusory concept.

Now, with the impacts of immigration and globalisation, many cities- London being an archetypal example- are cultural melting pots, and the lines that separate distinctive lifestyles and cultures are gradually being blurred. Even my grandmother, who epitomises ‘Bengali culture’ with her myriads of superstitions and customs, enjoys having the occasional Chinese take-away for dinner, and wears Norwegian slippers around her house. Second and third-generation immigrants find it even more difficult to adhere to the de facto laws of their ‘inherited’ cultures: we are exposed to different ideas, lifestyles, cuisines, philosophical perspectives, and clothing styles on a daily basis. We are able to actively pick and choose what we like and dislike; we are, for the most part, free to shape our own identities.

Despite this, there are examples of subsections of the wider London community that are, arguably, secluded, alienated, and according to some (such as certain highly enlightened Daily Mail journalists), not ‘integrated’ into wider society. The 2011 census showed the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community is mostly concentrated in East London, Arabs have established their ground in parts of the North Western region, the majority of Chinese Londoners reside in Southwark, and so on. It seems that people are eager to cling onto others who resemble themselves, but in doing so, they only scratch the surface of potential points of similarity, focusing on skin colour, recent ancestral linkages, and other artificial similarities, as opposed to overlaps in terms of, say, preferences. The amassment of certain groups in certain areas has been proliferated by relative minorities in those regions being made to feel like outsiders, and thus the phenomenon of ‘White Flight’ comes into play. Unfortunately, the issue is only sustained by other groups moving away from areas with predominantly homogeneous populations. The only way to break this chain is to force ethnic dissimilarities to become less significant, both to ethnic majorities in certain regions, and their minority counterparts.

Due to harmful stereotypes about race and ethnicity, people of colour here in Europe frequently experience ‘microaggressive’ forms of discriminatory behavior. People who are visibly of European descent are treated with extra attention and politeness, whilst individuals of colour are often made to be on the receiving end of acute impatience, and, at times, even aggressive behaviour; this can be observed almost everywhere, from planes to post offices, and it is deeply regrettable that this sort of prejudicial behavior is perpetuated by members of ethnic minorities themselves. Similarly, in certain Arabian countries, South Asians are seen and treated as inferior. Racial hierarchies are, unfortunately, still ubiquitous in the modern world. In some places, race-based slavery somehow continues to exist: countries like Libya and Saudi Arabia are a hundred steps behind when it comes to diminishing the relevance of ethnicity.

Ultimately, it is important to acknowledge that ethnicity is a mere social construct; although it is socially ‘real’, it is not biologically so, and, like all forms of societal categorization, placing consequential importance on ethnicity renders it a powerful force of division and discrimination. Evolutionary biologists (such as the renowned ‘celebrity atheist’ Richard Dawkins) argue that ethnicity might simply be a remnant of instinctive human tribalism: we feel the urge to behave altruistically towards our immediate family, as well as our neighbours, and people we physically resemble, but only when we all surrender to the truth of humanity being a singular species, without any actual morphological sub-species, will we ever be able to truly become ‘global citizens’.

“Nationalism,” Albert Einstein once said, “is a disease”. Excessive pride in one’s ethnic identity (or, in the same vein, the unbridled loathing, collectivising, and misunderstanding of other groups) is a huge barrier to achieving global peace and unity. This widespread obsession with ethnicity has led to, and still leads to, stereotyping, discrimination, and even genocides (Nazi Germany and the Bosnian Wars being prime examples of this). It is disturbing to think that miniscule, constructed differences such as religion, dialect, and skin colour can lead to such divisiveness and animosity, but the fact of the matter is, ethnicity is of such profound importance to our species solely because we allow it to be.

Although I will always be fascinated by my ancestral origins, my mother’s mother tongue, and the exquisite practices I have always enjoyed, I do not want to be known as ‘the Bengali girl’, nor do I want to be the token brown girl at my future workplace. I want people to see me for who I am, and not through a distorted lens of misunderstandings, preconceptions, and the popular sin of wanting to group people together, making them sacrifice their individuality for an amorphous, ambiguous collective identity based on the pontificated truths of ethnicity. Sure, my family is originally from Bangladesh: I have brown skin and dark hair, I eat curry regularly, and I (am forced to) attend countless extravagant family parties… but the next time I am asked about where I am ‘from’, whether on a form or in a fleeting ‘small talk’ conversation, I might just tick the box next to

prefer not to say’.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Recovery

We human beings are goal-driven creatures.

We always need something else to strive for, something else to look forward to, something else to distract ourselves with. We all find ourselves caught up, by default, in a futile search for perfection, but in actuality, our lives follow the law of universal balance: we will always be happy and sad in equal measure. We will have good days, and we will have bad days.

On our bad days, we may feel inadequate or insignificant- like oddities, or even mistakes. Sometimes the tunnel is so dark that it seems almost impossible that there might be a source of light at the end. But do not lose hope: this world is still a beautiful place- the same beautiful place that you knew as a child.

We are such miniscule beings- mere specks existing against all odds, within fleeting time restraints, on an ever-expanding, glorious universe of a canvas. Everything and everyone is so small, yet so important- our lives are so certain and cemented, and yet so fluid.

People seem to be so hell-bent on defining themselves and others, but humans are complex creatures. We cannot be concisely defined by our circumstances or experiences. Your dark days, the opinions of people who don’t understand you, your circumstances (mental or physical)- none of this defines you. The basis of self-autonomy is the most powerful weapon in your individual arsenal: the power to define yourself. Accepting yourself will be a lengthy battle- perhaps the hardest one you will ever fight- but it will be worth it. Loving yourself is the most profound form of revolution, but only you are capable of instigating it.

Embrace who you are fortunate enough to be; be the best version of yourself. Embrace your idiosyncrasies, flaws, feelings, your place in this world, and be kind. No act of kindness is ever carried out in vain.

It is almost inevitable that people will dislike you. Your existence will make many people uncomfortable, and your happiness will drive them insane. But if you lived in accordance with your critics’ expectations, you would lose the dimensions of your personality. You simply cannot please everyone.

Be yourself, and have your own fun. Your personality might not be compatible with everyone else’s, but rarity does not diminish your worth. You matter just as much as anybody else; there is no such thing as a hierarchy of worth, and any positive phenomenon that you deem others worthy of- well, you deserve the same. We are all made of pain and flaws and beauty, tied up with good intentions, and we are all equally deserving of happiness.

Every tear that falls from your eyes, every moment of frustration at your current state of being, every dark day, and every incoherent thought will exist in parallel with days of uncontrollable laughter, sheer joy, and copious amounts of love. Have faith, and remember that you are not weak or strange or an abnormality:

you are as real as it gets.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Identity

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The question of identity is one that every person battles with, particularly during adolescence, when we find ourselves confined within a grey area between the euphoric joys of childhood, and the endless responsibilities that come with adulthood.

This state of uncertainty can, understandably, lead to an identity crisis (or, in my case, a procession of consecutive identity crises) during which one questions the very nature of one’s existence: Who am I? And why am I here?

These questions are undoubtedly exacerbated by the sleepless world of social media: we are constantly being bombarded with expectations, labels, and stereotypes pertaining to our collective sense of self, which have now become impossible to avoid. Essentially, we are being placed into categorical cages, which shape our thoughts and our behaviours. One is either a nerd or an athlete- always introverted or always extroverted-masculine or feminine. We are so often forced to define ourselves.

Hello, my name is Sadia Ahmed and I am… a girl? A South Asian person? A teenager? A Muslim? A writer?

But I am forced to wonder: who am I, and what truly defines me? Do social circumstances (over which I have no control) define me? And if so, what if my circumstances change? Will I gradually lose fragments of my personality?

These thoughts remind me of an interesting philosophical idea- the Theseus’ Ship paradox. If one replaces every wooden part of a ship over a long period of time (resulting in the creation of a completely identical vessel) would it be correct to state that the replicated ship is still the original ship? Similarly, do we maintain congruous identities, even after being subjected to varying experiences and ever-changing ideas?

My qualms surrounding the theme of identity have always been lodged somewhere in the deep, dangerous recesses of my mind, but recently these qualms have been amplified. Sylvia Plath once said, “I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please, don’t ask me who I am.” I can relate very well to this statement: I am constantly being asked to define myself- to encapsulate my entire existence within a handful of words, whether it be at social gatherings, or school, or even in social media biographies. To be able to respond appropriately, I must favour some aspects of my identity over others. I am a nerd who enjoys travelling, writing, and reading. This is what I usually respond with. However, by doing this, I am forced to omit other aspects of my rather fluid personality:

I like eating takeaway near my windowsill at night when it is raining. I love dancing to Spanish music alone in my room at 10PM. I love having ‘packed lunches’ while watching Disney movies. I love the texture of paper that has been adorned with words and feelings. I love observing people, because every time I engage in this practice, I am reminded that human beings can be such wonderful and sincere creatures.

Our idiosyncrasies can never be contained within a string of words, or even within several strings of several words, and other people’s perceptions of us can often be very superficial, centered on little more than their own woes and insecurities. Do I talk too much? Good. Does my existence bother people? Even better. 

We are all born to different families, in different places, with different destinies. Sometimes it is comforting to know that others can relate to our perspectives and experiences, however in reality, other people are very quick to (subconsciously) stereotype and assume things based on meaningless observations. Some people speculate that because I am a ‘nerd’ whose interests are rooted in academia, I must love science. I must wish to become a surgeon, or an engineer, perhaps. I seem like I take everything too seriously. I must spend all my hours revising. ‘Intellectually capable’ people love science, want to become medics, study incessantly, and have no capacity whatsoever to embrace humour or affection; these must be facts of life, right? Wrong. These stereotypes are false, but they place a lot of pressure on me to be a certain way, unless I want to betray myself by straying away from my own ‘identity’. But alas, in reality, I possess an ardent love for English and History, and it truly irritates me when people surmise that science is more intellectually challenging, or more rewarding, than the humanities. Also, I would like to become a university professor or a lawyer in the future- medicine is, no doubt, a fascinating field, however I prefer fields that involve writing, speaking, and analysing different viewpoints. Oh, and finally, education is indisputably a priority to me, but so is friendship. So is family.

And so is occasionally sitting back and simply enjoying life.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

I am an immigrant

I am two people. I am Bangladeshi and I am British. The first version of my identity stems from the fact that I am the daughter of two immigrants. I say this with a tremendous amount of pride. Especially in recent months, the word ‘immigrant’ has come to be a dirty word, synonymous with images of filthy, diseased, impoverished people who ‘drain the economy’ and refuse to integrate into society. As the product of two immigrants, I can safely say that this is far from the truth.

My mother came to this country at the age of eleven: she left her friends, her beloved grandmother, her livelihood behind, because her father (my grandfather) had made the brave decision to move to England to start anew. He worked at a coat factory, laboriously attaching buttons to coats to provide for his family.

My grandfather (may he rest in peace) first came to this country when he was a teenager. Alone and almost penniless, he travelled to a country that promised work and stability, in the aftermath of World War Two. He often told me stories of how, during the coldest winters here, he and his friends would attempt to identify their houses beneath the many inches of snow, by leaving bricks beside their homes. These simple but endearing stories reminded me of the fact that my ancestors suffered for me to have this life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

My nan’s story is perhaps the most heart-rending of them all. She was born to a poor family with six other children. My great grandmother often went for days without food in order to ensure that her children did not starve. She would tell them white lies, insisting that she had eaten, to fool them into thinking that there was enough food, but there was not. Miniscule rations of rice and lentils were shared sparsely, and eventually, my nan saw through her mother’s façade of strength. The women that I am fortunate enough to be a descendant of are the strongest, most admirable and brave people I have ever heard of, and I aspire to pass their legacies on to my own children.

When it comes to my own mother, I can see that it pains her to retell her story. Her eyes brim with tears when she recounts her euphoric childhood in Bangladesh- how she couldn’t even bear to spend a day away from her grandmother, until a plane brought her to an alien country with people who would look down upon her. My mother started school here when she was in Year Seven. She was forced to learn an entire language with little support, and even then, managed to excel at most of the subjects she took (save for History, which she abhorred). My mother worked ridiculously hard, refusing to let any adversities get in her way: indeed, she was the victim of many a racist incident. Despite this, she acquired a good job, and supported herself through college and extra training. She managed to do all this without much guidance; as supportive as my nan and grandfather were, they were very limited in their English-speaking abilities, and the family’s situation quickly became a case of my mother and her siblings teaching my nan and grandfather. My mother was her own mentor, her own teacher and her own student. She raised me to be inquisitive, resilient and determined. My mother is the definition of strength; she epitomizes the type of magnificence that only women of colour can claim to possess.

My father was also rather independent in his journey. After completing his secondary education in Bangladesh, my father worked a number of temporary jobs at mini cab offices and restaurants, in order to provide for our little family: my parents had me at a relatively young age, when my mother was 22 and my father was 23. They were still finding their way around things: around their identities, around work and around integrating into an unfamiliar society and its customs. Now, sixteen years after my birth, my father owns a successful technology business in East London. He is surrounded by loving friends in a comfortable environment, however I know that deep down, nothing will ever replace my father’s true home, amidst the luscious green fields of Bangladesh. Sometimes when he speaks of his childhood, his voice breaks and he becomes teary. I know that in those moments, my father recalls his mother, who passed away when he had just entered adulthood.

My parents and grandparents have sacrificed and lost so much, in the hope of a better life for my family. The stories they tell are saturated with pain and loss and love and hope, and they have instilled in me values of gratitude, resilience and unbreakable strength. Though I was born here in London, I am the descendant of a family of immigrants. I listen to the tales of their childhoods, I enjoy the aromatic curries that remind them of their former lives, and I enjoy engaging in the hundreds of beautiful traditions that they have imparted on me. I am an immigrant, and I honestly could not be prouder of my identity.

5 Ramadan Hacks to Improve Your Fasting Experience

This article is dedicated to my fellow Muslim readers who are currently observing the holy month of Ramadan. Below, I have compiled a list of five useful hacks to better your Ramadan experience, especially as we approach the last ten days- the most blessed segment of the month. 


1) Have porridge and watermelon for Suhoor:

This hack is immensely beneficial. For Suhoor, I usually have a bowl of porridge, followed by a handful of berries and a few slices of watermelon. I then take two iron supplements with two glasses of water. Porridge has numerous benefits; it sustains me throughout the day, as it is very filling, and (being an excellent source of carbohydrates) releases bouts of energy throughout the day, thus ensuring continued optimal brain activity. Watermelon has similar benefits. This particular fruit is extremely hydrating, as 92% of it is water.

2) Set an alarm for each prayer:

Aim to pray on time; set an alarm for each prayer on your phone. You can even customise the sound to make the Adhan play for each prayer. After Salah, read a few pages of the Qur’an. Bear in mind that during this holy month, the rewards for each good deed are multiplied by 70- do not waste this opportunity!

3) Alter your timetable:

Daily life does not simply stop for Ramadan. We are still expected to work, sit exams and carry on with life as usual. That being said, due to Taraweeh, Suhoor and Tahajjud prayers, even the best of us can become sleep deprived during this time. Sleep deprivation has numerous detrimental effects on health, so should be avoided at all costs. The average human being requires approximately seven hours of sleep per night, but this can be divided into portions. During Ramadan, it is a good idea to have a long nap after Zuhr (i.e. after school), work at a leisurely pace between Asr and Maghrib, then carry on working until Fajr.

4) Make a good deed checklist:

Ramadan is, by far, the best time of the year to rack up on good deeds. To ensure that you use this time wisely, why not make a good deed checklist? After Fajr, make a list of good deeds you can do throughout the day. These can include smiling at people, helping an elderly person, giving charity and learning more about the faith by studying Hadiths.

5) Do Wudhu with cold water:

Going for hours on end without any renewed sources of energy can result in fatigue and lack of productivity, but this does not have to be the case. Cold water is a very effective way to wake you up, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be drunk in order to do so. Washing your face, forearms and other body parts with cold water during Wudhu can stimulate blood flow and wake you up instantly.

I hope these hacks will prove useful for you, and I pray that you enjoy and benefit from these last ten days as much as possible.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Why GCSEs are a problem

Every British student has his or her own story to tell when it comes to the topic of GCSEs. There are the ridiculously bright, organised and perpetually energetic who jump with glee at the thought of endless hours of revision. Then there are the other 99% of the British teen population: the insanely intelligent and unique individuals who are not particularly compatible with the GCSE system of broad memorisation.

This article is dedicated to all of you: the brilliant, creative beings who have been labeled “dumb” or “lazy” due to your reluctance to sit down for hours on end, memorising an abundance of pointless information; the ones currently suffering from anxiety or depression or ADHD, so revision becomes synonymous with torture; the teens whose lives are currently too unstable for them to bear the burden of the responsibility of such a task, and, of course, the model students who suffer endlessly for their grades. I understand you, and I believe in you. You are not stupid or incompetent, and the system has failed you.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

To any non-Brits reading this article who are wondering what on Earth GCSEs are, they are a series of examinations fifteen and sixteen-year-olds take here in the UK, across eight to fifteen subjects in total. Most of these tests rely not on creativity, practical skills or logic; they rely primarily on memory retention. Imagine having to memorise subject content (usually about three textbooks of information for each subject) across numerous subjects. Some students have to sit over thirty exams- exams that do not focus on a particular career path, but across a desultory range.

Of course, as a keen socialist, I am all for education- it is the key to success both on a personal and global basis. However, that being said, the GCSE system here in the UK is in desperate need of reform. Not only does it counterproductively dull down intelligence and creativity, it also does little to prepare young individuals for life in the real world, especially in the digital age.

The system has failed to modernise- the constructors of the GCSE system must be unaware of the existence of Google. We do not need to memorise useless dates such as when the NHS Act was introduced, nor do we need to memorise complex algebraic functions or how dust precipitators work. The education of our generation- Generation Alpha- is being placed into the hands of a group of old, incompetent, privileged politicians who are simply making it increasingly difficult for the underprivileged to succeed.

GCSE grades lull high achieving students into a false sense of security and subsequent academic arrogance (which is sometimes absolutely demolished come A-levels) and give underachieving students the false impression that they are stupid and good for nothing. The truth is, not every GCSE Physics student will grow up to become a Physicist, and the same can be said for every other GCSE subject. Everyone excels at something- whether it be painting, baking, engineering or politics- and everyone deserves to be commended for their talents, irrespective of whether or not they were able to bag 10 A*s at GCSE level.

I do not, in any way, believe that GCSEs should be scrapped altogether, however I believe they are in desperate need of reform; the British education system must keep with the times, make learning more accessible and enjoyable (without leaving students with a feeling of perpetual exhaustion and dread), and do a better job at preparing us for the future.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Where Youth and Laughter Go

This poem is about the inherent folly of war.


From fighting for  my country, I have learnt

That bombs fall like raindrops,

But so do tears. So does vomit. So does blood.

And the human ego is so

Fragile, yet indestructible.

It finds itself woven subtly

Into uniforms, weapons and empty pledges of empty allegiance.

Looking up at the sooty, dust-filled sky,

I thought it was almost beautiful

How one person flying overhead,

Holds in his hands the limitless power to kill,

To destruct and destroy,

To take our lives and wipe our sins away

And compete against infinity.

Every bullet that slices through the air like a shooting star

Holds the power to slice through a heart,

To bring a man down to his knees and breathe

His very last breath.

To orphan a child, to widow a wife,

To extinguish a thousand hopes, dreams and fears,

To steal a life.

Because war makes us feel powerful- immortal- like gods.

But it reduces men to nothing- to ghosts, not gods, hiding in their own ribcages,

Unsure of what to do-

It’s almost beautiful how men cry too.

In a life where love is the only war we’ve yet to wage,

Where men sit in shallow trenches- shallow graves,

Praying- begging- to see their loved ones again.

They don’t have time to see the irony of it all:

They demolish cities and wreck livelihoods

While they yearn for the comfort of their own families.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori,

Show me where it hurts, and listen carefully:

Listen to how gunshots sound like heartbeats in the distance,

See how the blood that flows whimsically through the veins of the Earth

Has no name, no nation, no personality;

They are fluids of cowardice and terror, of tenderness and humanity.

We are just children, pretending to be men, and I long

To be held again.

To lay roses over the eternal tombs of the fallen, but there are no roses left-

Only shrapnel and shells of men, hollow and bereft.

Slovenly, we shoot for the moon, for the stars, for love, for peace.

But we all end up in the hell

Where youth and laughter go.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

#TwoMinutePoetryChallenge

I wrote this poem in the space of two minutes and I challenge my readers to do the same.


Look outside.

Are the clouds weeping? Do they share my sorrow?

Or does the world simply go on?

Did the sun rise today? Did the winds still blow?

Did time just carry on as though

Everything is okay?

Did the birds sing this morning? I would not know,

For their symphonies continue to be cancelled out by my desire to hear nothing.

Tell me: did the trees sway in the breeze today? Did they notify you of their reluctance to bear fruit at this hour?

Why must we wait for things? Why do we challenge ourselves to wait to escape?

Patience reflects delusion and a false sense of

Immortality.

Are we all just kidding ourselves?

We are all just kidding ourselves.

Look outside. The clouds are weeping, but they do not share my sorrow.

I am here, encapsulated in a universe that is neither happy nor sad, yet here I am,

Embodying (compensating for)  its lack of happiness and sadness,

All at once.

Like how the clouds gush tears of neutrality, I cry tears of happiness, sadness

and everything in between.

 


Sadia Ahmed, 2016