If you hadn't heard, I applied to Project Runway for the second time this year! Yay! I applied last year and didn't make it through to the next round, but this year I received an email of congratulations three days after I submitted my application. Needless to say I was so excited. Lots of young designers aspire to get onto the design competition show, Project Runway, and that day I felt just a lick closer to that dream.
Its funny how things turn out despite things standing in your way. Last year, I had a stable income, was living at home with my parents, and had a months notice to submit the tediously long application, portfolio, and video. This year I hadn't even thought about applying, because I was planning to stay in Istanbul for the whole year. Because of the violence and my health getting bad, I came back early. I got an email from the casting people saying there was ten days left to apply, my brain kicked into panic mode!
I already had lots of professional photographs taken (thanks Steve, Tim, Sue, and Emajhn) over this past year, all I needed was a video. I snagged some help from a willing friend, borrowed my dad's ancient video camera, and headed to downtown Detroit to shoot the film. It was quick, raw, and real. I had fun shooting it and I think you can tell. Watch the video and tell me what you think!
The email told me that on Friday, April 14th I was to come to the James Hotel in Chicago for an interview at 2:45. I rented a motel the night before outside the city, and drove in early that day to scout the place out. I got to the hotel right on time, and was shown to a lobby where there were other designers with their racks of clothes. I walked in with my garment bag slung over my shoulder with a confident stride, and started hanging up my garments. I felt proud that for the first time in my life, I wasn't comparing myself to anyone, and felt secure and happy with the work I was presenting.
I was actually the last person to be interviewed, and they had been running late. It was about an hour past when I was originally supposed to be seen, but I didn't mind. I was having fun talking to all the other designers, there were three I met from Michigan. Two female twins caught my eye- one feminine girl with long brown hair, and the other a rocker girl with a shaved head. They both sported bright pink lips and septum piercings.
When it was my time, I walked in already knowing who the judges were, I had scouted it out by asking the other designers. I knew that in the middle was my idol, the designer Mondo Guerra who was a runner-up on Season 8 of Project Runway. I had seen him back in the day and was in awe of his pattern mixing abilities. He was the one who inspired me to have confidence in my pattern mixing and was instrumental in shaping a big part of my design aesthetic to this day. Needless to say my heart was pounding and I was laser focused on not screwing up anything. I walked in there with good posture and my head high.
It was a huge room. I looked around as I wheeled my metal clothing rack onto the tape spot marked on the carpet. I was supposed to stand in one spot but I walked forward and shook first a woman's hand, then Mr. Guerra himself, then another woman. I had the opportunity to shake his hand, and said "Big fan". That, by itself, made the trip for me. While I was presenting my work, he smiled and nodded, and was just as nice as he always seemed on T.V. When I was done, the three judges had nothing but positive words to say about me and my work. Mondo said I seemed fearless, and that I would intimidate contestants on the show. I took that as a huge compliment. The point all three judges could agree on was that I was young. Young and determined, but still a fresh designer. That weekend was amazing, but that evening after my interview I was called back and they wished me good luck for applying next year.
Even though I didn't make it in, I still felt this un-penetrable high, a drive, a thirst that can't ever get quenched. I thought that maybe I was meant to struggle to build this business from the ground up, like most people have to. Getting onto T.V would make it too easy. The grind, the struggle, and the failures all teach me important lessons. I'd like to personally thank the three judges for saying no to me, because you re-lit my flame and gave me a goal for next year. I'm coming for you, you haven't seen the last of me for sure.
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1. It sounds corny, but just do it!
Seriously, just start making shit. Literally anything. The more you make, the more materials you experiment with, and the more often you do it, the better! When I was a little pre-teen and growing out of my doll phase, I refused to give them away just so that I would have an excuse to sew them new outfits. Doll clothes by hand turned into a handful of garments sloppily thrown together, but still people-sized, made on my mother's old metal Riccar sewing machine. The first fashion show I was ever in, 2013 EMU Fashion Week, was the first time I even came close to attempting to make a collection or more than a few mismatched items. Looking back at my work, I cringe. Nothing was cohesive, and my construction was awful. I think every artist is critical of their work in this way, but I can look back now with pride because I jumped into it headfirst and without fear. Fearlessness will produce results every time.
2. Don't be afraid to fail, because failure is a fake concept.
I am almost entirely type A. I get it from my dad. I love to produce results, and hate to fail. That fear of failure has held me back in the past, but no more. I learned to let it go, and since I did that I have been seeing such amazing, positive, results! Yes, I did fail more, but according to the law of probability, for every time you fail there is a chance you will succeed. So, with that logic, the more you fail the more likely you are to succeed! I throw myself into situations I am not prepared for, just to see how hard I can fail. I ''failed'' every time I tried to draft a sleeve pattern. It just kept pinching in the shoulders, or being too bulky. I failed and failed until one day, I didn't, and I just GOT IT in a way that no lesson or teacher could give me, and only failure could. With that new skill of drafting sleeve patterns I went on to design (and get paid for) three custom wedding looks, and counting.
3. Make friends with people who have similar interests and goals
This may go without saying, but I think it is relevant, because I wish someone had encouraged me to do this earlier on. I had great friends in high school, but I was the only one with such big aspirations or with a career that was seen as “gutsy” or “outside the norm”. I kind of kept my art in my own world, and didn't even invite people to my runway shows in the beginning. I am thankful for that in retrospect because I was able to develop my art voice without influence, however I think it is also good to have pride in your work and involve your family/loved ones. If they are not as excited as you'd hope, go to networking events and meet ups to find people who think like you.
4. COLLABORATE WITH EVERYONE!
Once you make a connection, and you feel like the gesture would be welcome, offer to do a collaboration. For example, Leah Vernon is a body-positive fashion blogger in Detroit who I didn't know that well until recently. We had seen each other and heard about each other, but without a connection, its hard to form a friendship. I reached out to her and offered to design a dress for her from scratch, and do a photo shoot for both our blogs. We had lots of fun together, and that is why we are friends to this day. Another example of a collaboration is a friend of a friend of mine, Jeremy, who hand-paints textiles. That is something I have always wanted to get into, and he already does it and is good at it. He is making me fabric, I am sewing him a cool outfit, and we both get cool representation from the other. Its all about using people's strengths to supplement your weaknesses and vice-versa. Help and work with people from the get-go, and they will be more likely to befriend and help you in return.
5. Research other designers, but don't over do it.
The one thing I can be thankful for about not going to fashion school is that my head is free of any outside influence. It is a well-known phenomenon among creatives that when they love someone's work, their own work started to emulate it. That's okay, because art is all appropriation from each other anyway. However, if you are constantly looking at other people, you won't have the creative space in your brain to make your own ideas. I experienced this when I first got on Pinterest, I kept pinning and obsessing over fashion, and then I wondered why I couldn't come up with new ideas. Now, I make a conscious effort to put social media/internet away when I'm in design mode, so I have nothing to interfere with my train of thought.
6. If you don't wear your clothes, no one else will either
Back in the day, when I first started designing, I approached it like the visual artist that I am. I figured I was sending these designs down the runway, each one should be unique, over the top, and like a walking piece of art. It should get a reaction, and people may not understand it. That's all good and dandy, if you are dressing Lady Gaga. For a designer who aspires to sell their work in stores and to real people, like I do, making the designs wearable is pertinent. I used to never wear my designs, because they were too over the top and crazy. Over time I refined my look, and made it more approachable to common people. Now I make sure that I sport my own designs to the grocery store, out for a meal, and especially to all networking events. You are your own billboard. I have more fans and clients than ever, because they see how much I love my own work.
7. There is no wrong way to promote your brand
There really isn't, except violent/vulgar things, of course. I used to think that the only way to get the word out about my fashion is by creating and showcasing collections at runway shows, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Everyone wears clothes, so everyone is a candidate to rep your work. The world is your runway. Wearing your own clothes, and having everyone you know wear your clothes is the best and easiest way. Beauty/fashion/lifestyle bloggers across the internet LOVE to get clothes to try on and get cool pictures in, offer to send them an outfit for a week. Musicians are great candidates too, get some to wear your shit during one of their shows. Youtube stars who make videos that align with your brand vision are also great candidates. Generally speaking, anyone with any type of publicity, or who is from/influences your target demographic, should be wearing your clothes. If you can make that happen, the publicity will come on its own.
8. Have a vision, but recognize that it can and will evolve over time
Those who remember my old work remember I used to call my brand “Lady Liberty”. I started with that concept with the tag line “Lady Liberty seeks to liberate women from standards of beauty set by society”. Not super complicated, but I stuck with it for a while. After coming out as bi-sexual to my close friends last year, I started to embrace my androgynous style that always made me different than other girls. I realized that I wanted to dress men, women, and everyone in between. I recognized that my brand was in fact me, so I named it Lena Harbali: Design and Blog. Now, my vision is to create a brand that is inclusive to ALL people, regardless of shape, color, size, gender, or sexuality. My new slogan is “Socially conscious designs that rebel against the System”. I had no effing clue what I was doing when I started. Now, I feel so proud of how far I have come, and how I was able to fully pinpoint my purpose. Having a clear purpose will help your vision, so work on defining WHY you do things, and then the HOW will come later.
9. Remember that it's not about the money, but it really is.
2016 was the first year I made real money off my design work. It wasn't much, but getting any kind of profit as a new independent business is a huge accomplishment. Ironically, 2016 was also the year that I decided to stop pursuing fashion shows. One would think that would have negatively effected my business. I started focusing instead on creating a great brand and product to boost sales. Whatever I did must have worked, because I am making money doing what I love. At the end of the day, if no one is paying me to do design work, I will have to get paid doing something else, because everyone needs money to live. Getting a second job cuts into my art time, which then makes it harder to get art out to the masses. With this logic, asking for money for your work is not being greedy, it is knowing your value and demanding it from the world. Just like lawyers and doctors get paid for their services, artists should too. Your followers will appreciate the fact that you are consistent in creating new art for their enjoyment. Not asking for money is letting everyone down.
10. Don't EVER let anyone be a hater and bring you down
This one is huge for me. I was a victim of bullying from 8th to 9th grade (read my story and how I overcame it here). That experience really hurt my confidence, especially regarding my art. I remember bringing in some of my designs and the girls saying that it looked like Grandma clothes. Back then, I felt the sting. Now, I shrug it off. I had haters back when I barely knew how to sew, and I have even more haters now that I actually know what I'm doing and can create amazing, incredible work! Funny, right? The more talented you are, the more jealous people will be, and the more they will try to tear you down. As an artist, its even harder to be understood, because we are often speaking in visual rather than vocal words. People often don't appreciate art, and will insult it or dismiss it because of their confusion. Don't let their ignorance, opinions, words of discouragement, or any other negative energies infiltrate your heart and mind. Kick those haters straight out of your life! Here's how. They are them, you are you, and you are awesome! All it takes is for you to believe in your work, and the bullies can never get under your skin.
Are you or someone you know a self-taught artist? How did you or your friend build success without training? What are some ways we get get skills training without traditional school? What is one of the coolest collaboration and promotion ideas you have?
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Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the first Anti-Bullying Workshop organized by Trendsetter's Productions Modeling and Etiquette School. The owner, Tracy Palmer, has been running the school for over three years in the Flint area. I met her back in 2013 when I designed a collection and showed it at one of her runway shows. Back then I was pretty fresh into the fashion scene, it was only my third show. What struck me back then was how she combined fashion with community and social activism. Her focus these days is on reducing bullying not only in schools, but across the board. She experienced bullying growing up, and so did a few of her children, so the cause hits close to home. Tracy's goal is to show people going through bullying now that there is hope for the future, and to give them practical tools to cope. The unique aspect to her approach is that she doesn't only focus on healing the bully victim, but also on engaging the entire community to help prevent people from becoming bullies in the first place. This method treats the bully as a human being, and with compassion, rather than blind punishments. Seeing the bully as a person with a past history can help us understand what caused them to end up hurting other people.
When I first arrived, Tracy was reading out some statistics about bullying. The first shocked me: Michigan is number one in bullying across the country! The second was even more shocking: suicide is the leading cause of death of youth between the ages of 10 and 24. This results in approximately 4,400 lives lost each year because of bullying. Hearing this really effected me, because I could have been one of those numbers. After I left the workshop I felt very inspired to share my bullying story, so that hopefully someone can gain some useful insight or a new perspective.
Not many people know this about me, but I was bullied to the point of being suicidal during 8th and 9th grade. Because of my depression, I attempted suicide three times. The only thing that stopped me was thinking how much it would scar my four younger siblings if their older sister they looked up to suddenly killed herself. Just thinking about it gets me upset, even though I haven't felt depression in years. My bullying story is pretty typical: I moved to a new school, where many of the students had known each other since grade school. In retrospect, its clear they felt threatened by the 'new girl' who was artistic, smart, and taller than everyone there. I can say that now with confidence, but back then, the bullying consumed my entire world.
Through my school years, I had always been the 'good kid', did well in class, and got along with my peers. It wasn't until the bullying that things started to change. Because of the bullying and depression, I developed anger issues that got me into trouble with the teachers. It was infuriating to me that the teachers always trusted the bullies' word over mine because I was an outsider. Every time an incident would occur, I would retaliate with anger against the bullies, then get punished by the teachers and administration in response. The principle and vice principle had what seemed to be a vendetta against me. I got suspended for the most ridiculous things, breaking rules that other, more long-time students didn't even know existed. I felt rejected by both the students and the teachers, so I had no where to turn for help.
Back home it wasn't any better. The transition from my secular school in Hiroshima, Japan to the private Muslim school in Michigan was extremely difficult for me. I had been in the secular school for four years during middle school. I had good friends and the art program was spectacular. The teachers loved me and encouraged my unique voice. My parents always wanted my siblings and I to be in religious school, so they had big hopes for my time back in Michigan. I was expected to graduate from the Muslim school like my older brother did. Their dedication to providing me a religious education made it hard for them to hear my complaints about school. They thought that I was simply being a rebellious teen, and that I just needed to adjust.
My depression got worse really quick. Within just those two years, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, tried out three different counselors, and several types and doses of anti-depressants. As a minor I had no control over anything. I was forced to go see a counselor, but lost all trust when I discovered she was relaying every word to my parents. I didn't want to take medicine. I knew I wasn't sick, my environment was just making me this way. Every day I took the pill in the morning before school, but would come home crying and upset regardless. Every time I took the anti-depressant it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, just like the bullies made me feel, just like the teachers made me feel, and just like my parents made me feel for not loving the school they chose. It was a horrible cycle and I felt trapped.
I was overwhelmed by these feelings of being trapped and powerless so much that I no longer wanted to live. The first suicide plan I had was to take a bunch of pain pills and overdose. I couldn't follow through. The second was to hang myself in my closet. I even had a chair set up, a belt hanging from the rod, and in a noose around my neck . I remember taking one foot off the chair and bending the other, letting the pressure build on my throat till I saw black. I chickened out and stopped. The last time was the same, but before I had a chance to put the belt over my head, my little sister knocked on the door asking to play with her. I broke down crying because I knew I could never leave them.
When I wasn't attempting suicide, I was engaging in other self-harming coping mechanisms. My left arm still has scars from the cutting. It started out as a curiosity, to see just how much physical pain could I withstand. The physical pain numbed all the emotional pain I was feeling. It was a rush and an adrenaline that I used to cope. Other teens may turn to drugs, alcohol, or partying. I chose to hurt myself. At first it was just pins and other objects I could make a small surface scratch with. I quickly graduated to real razors that left deep wounds and dripped red. My mom found a blood soaked pillow case in my room, and that's when she really understood the severity of my depression.
All this hurt and suffering was caused by only a handful of people. The private school was extremely small, so I was forced to see these same girls every day in every class. They never beat me up, stole from me, or damaged any of my property. Instead, they made fun of and excluded me relentlessly, day in and day out. It doesn't take being physically bullied to get physically hurt. Often times verbal bullying drives the victim to hate themselves so much that they do the job themselves. Thankfully, I was able to convince my parents to let me transfer schools, and the bullying finally ended. My last three years of high school were spent at Washtenaw Technical Middle College where I was able to heal and rebuild my confidence. Being bullied changed me in so many ways, and if there is someone out there reading this who bullies someone, I'd like you to recognize exactly how much your actions hurt people. Here are some of the ways I was affected by bullying:
Thinking back on my bullying story and how I overcame it, I feel a sense of pride. I pulled through. I came out on the other side as a strong, confident woman. But not everyone is so lucky. There are people of all walks of life experiencing bullying this very moment, and some may be considering taking their own life as a result. It necessary that communities are persistent with opening and continuing dialogue about ways we can work together to end this epidemic. That is why am teaming up with Tracy to bring more awareness to the issue and search for solution. We are cooking up an event together to achieve this, so stay tuned!
Thank you for reading up until this point, and for exploring the most vulnerable parts of my heart with me.
Have you ever experienced bullying? If so, how has it effected you?
What are some practical ways we can stop bullying in our schools, workplaces, and society?
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In life, the only currency we have is time. We trade our time while working at our jobs, which gives us money, with which we buy the products we use to live. We assess the value for each product we buy, so why don't we assess the value of each person we trade our time for? That time will never be given back. There is no refund policy for life. If its hard to assess whether someone brings value to your life, ask yourself if you could have done something more valuable with your time than see that person. If the answer is no, then you know that you have a deep and meaningful connection with that person. If the answer is yes, you could have been more productive with your time, then maybe it's time to reassess this relationship. Start by assessing the value each person brings to your life, then move on to the steps below.
1. Think objectively about how much you sacrifice to continue that relationship, and how much they contribute.
Ah, the needy friend. Don't we all love those? This point takes me back to freshman year of university. I had found a new group of “cool” older friends, all in their mid to upper twenties. Ironically, as the youngest of the group, I was the most put together out of them all. I was the only one with a steady job, and a car. These “friends” started asking for rides in my car, for money, or to grab the bill at the restaurant. When I have a deep and meaningful connection with a friend, like I do with my best friends, money means nothing and I will treat them to dinner till I go broke. But with these friends, they did nothing to reciprocate my kindness. I realized that I didn't trust them. It wasn't until I discovered that one of these “friends” had taken my car and driven it without my permission while I was at a party that I decided to cut these people out of my life for good. As I figured, they only texted me when they needed money, or a ride to work. I promptly blocked all their asses.
2. Ask yourself: “Can I see myself having a meaningful relationship with this person in 5-10 years?”
With regards to the people mentioned above, the answer for me was a resounding “HELL NAW!” If you find yourself questioning your relationship with someone, whether it be an old friend or new acquaintance, think about your future with them. Can you see them at your wedding, graduation, or other important events? Do you think you would invite them to your birthday party twenty years from now? If the answer is no, then you probably should save your time in the present and walk away. If you don't see yourself having a valuable connection with this person in the future, then it probably won't benefit you now.
3. Listen to the type of language they use around you.
Have you ever been around some one who was ridiculously passive aggressive? How about someone really sarcastic or negative? Thinking about people like this probably already has you in a bad mood. I've had countless friends, classmates, and coworkers, that I didn't pursue friendships with because of their negative vibe and energy. The first way someone's vibe is detected is through their speech and language. If they are constantly bringing themselves down, this tends to bring down your energy too. They could use language meant to bring you down as well, perhaps because of jealousy or projected anger. These types of people will only remain this way, cannot be fixed, and should be avoided like the poison they are.
5. When it comes down to it, does hanging around them make you happy?
This one's pretty simple. If you hang out with a friend and come home feeling like shit almost every time, then maybe that friendship isn't so great. It doesn't matter what type of unwanted emotion that person is making you feel, as long as it is unwanted that is enough justification to end the friendship. I once had a guy friend who was in a long-term relationship. He wanted to marry the girl, or so he told me, but was always flirtatious with me and would complain about his girlfriend every time I saw him. I found myself becoming attracted to him even though I valued our friendship, but it was an automatic response to his manipulative ways. I would come home feeling guilty like I was the “other woman” even though we had never done or said anything sexual. When I started feeling like this all the time, I knew it was time to stop seeing him. I simply stopped replying to his messages, and its been years now since I've seen or heard from him. The drama went away along with him. All the time I would have spent on him is now restored back to me, where I can use it for something much more positive and meaningful, and that makes me feel happy.
After going through the steps above, the rest will come naturally. Once you have recognized that the relationship isn't bringing enough value to your life in exchange for the time you spent, you will have an easy time deciding to end that connection. Next comes the hard part. How do you stop engaging with a person who feels so entitled to your attention? In this age of technology, cutting people out has to start there. If someone is bothering you or making you feel uncomfortable, immediately block them on all social media sites. I can't even tell you how long my block list is on Facebook. You would think that I would mainly be blocking creepy old men, but the type of people I encounter on social media as a modern woman shockingly broad...
The list goes on....
As I have worked to expand my brand and blog, I've had to reach out even further into the depths of the internet to engage with audiences. As I was doing this I started seeing more and more hate being thrown, seemingly without remorse, in all directions. There are communities on the internet that are so supportive and loving, but on the outskirts there always lies a hoard of ignorant haters, sitting in their underwear posting on the internet out of pure spite.
How does one navigate this shit storm, you ask? Simple.
It all comes down to your mindset. It sounds cliche, but things are cliche for a reason. When someone sends me a hateful, violent, or uninvited sexually explicit message, instead of feeling fear and anger, I turn it around in my head and feel sorry for them. There is clearly something wrong going on in their life, heart, or soul, for them to think that this behavior is acceptable and necessary. They should be ashamed of themselves. Recognize that you are the sane and loving one who is not sending negative vibes into the universe. You are simply taking up your own space, doing your own thing, and they are intruding on your bubble and causing harm.
You need to strengthen your mental bubble. They are sad, pathetic people, who have nothing better to do than sit on their computers and find a feminist to slut-shame on the internet to make themselves feel better. They are the people who grew up with uneducated families, and were taught that black skin meant evil. That Trump supporter who hates immigrants is now missing out on some of the best food in the world. By being a hater, they are missing out on so much GOOD STUFF. Of course, it makes a lot of sense! By being a hater, they are missing out on so much LOVE. THEY are the ones who have their hearts and minds shut to the world, to people different than them, and to the “other”.
Opening yourself up to every kind of person is hard. There are so many people in the world. They will say things that hurt, confuse, and scare you. The important thing is that you listen. Listen and learn. How can you know your enemies without learning about them? How can you find common ground with a stranger without knowing what ground he stands on?
So let's all learn to not be a HATER, learn to open ourselves up for LOVE and ENLIGHTENMENT, and use our new-found self love to care for our selves by kicking haters out of our lives for good!
COMMENT BELOW! What are some ways you practice self-care and avoid negativity? What's your best tip to kicking out a hater?
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I've decided to combine my love for fashion with my knack for finding gems in the oddest of markets, and open a Resale Boutique! One of my absolute favorite hobbies is going to thrift stores, flea markets, and boutiques of all kind and picking out garments and accessories that are super unique. It is how I love to dress myself. I like to combine my own designs with thrifted items to make my look more grungy and whimsical. I have fun altering my thrift store finds or adding to them with new fabric, embroidery, or paint straight on the item. Visit my Resale Boutique page weekly to see what new item I have photographed for sale.
This generation does not view religion like the previous one, and that is clearly visible. Our parents generation generally went along with what their parents did before them, when it comes to religion anyway. Often times a child born to Christianity was a Christian when they died. A child born into Islam was a Muslim when they died. It is a cycle. People live and die for generations having the same mentality without ever growing or evolving. I think in a different way. I made the choice a long time ago, while I still identified as fully Muslim, to allow myself to think that there might be another way. This is something extremely radical in strict religious communities. In Islam its called Shirk, meaning doing something that discredits Allah, his Prophets, or the Qur'an.
It always bothered me that in religious communities, even simply asking questions is met with negativity and resistance. I remember being in Qur'an (holy scripture) class and reading lines that I didn't quite understand. When I would ask what they meant, or why we had to obey what was written, I was treated like a rebellious child. Disagreeing with the words of the holy scripture is never an option in religious schools. Drowning in that expectation, I tried to make sense of things as best as I could. My curiosity was stifled time and time again, and all I could do was force myself to believe and obey. All those unanswered questions lead to frustration that built up over time, and that's why years later I'm coming face to face all these un-examined feelings stuffed in my chest.
Sadly my experience is a common one in religious communities, whether it be Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Each religion has its own culture and traditions that often converge to complicate things even further. For example, in Islam, the holy scripture commands all women past puberty to cover in a headscarf, or Hijab. If you travel to Saudi Arabia, they take it to the extreme and the women are covered head to toe in black with only eyes and hands showing. On the other hand, a trip to Pakistan would show women with midriffs showing, Saris slipping off their shoulders, and their silk scarves falling off their hair. Each group of people will interpret the scripture their own way, making religion corruptible. People of all backgrounds born into these religions have experienced these unpleasant circumstances. As I got older I came to realize that most of my friends or people that gravitated towards me also felt this same way about organized religion.
Several friends of mine have recalled experiences in their religious communities that made them feel resentful, confused, and unwelcome. They have similar stories of asking questions at school or with family, and being shut down without an answer. These experiences create a collection of memories in one's brain relating back to religion. Because of how our religious communities handle truth-seekers and skeptics, our recollections of religion now often have negative connotations. Those negative feelings, mixed with my natural skepticism, evolved quickly into the question:
“Why don't religious communities encourage their followers to ask questions and empower them to find the Truth?”
If religion was truly about connection with God and finding the divine Truth, then religious communities shouldn't discourage their followers to ask questions. If history has shown us anything, it is that holy scriptures and religion can be used to manipulate naive people. Christianity is an easy example- it was used as a weapon for years, to strip away the identity of Native People, and to control the African slaves. Back when most of the citizens of a land were illiterate, it was generally the government who controlled and interpreted the scriptures. As the saying goes, wherever there is power there is corruption. The only way to prevent being taken advantage of or mislead is to always follow your gut.
It wasn't until I actually slowed down and examined my views of religion that I recognized all these stifled doubts inside. My gut had been poking me for years. Identifying as Muslim this long without being fully convinced, or at least working towards full conviction, was doing myself a huge disservice. I was robbing myself of the chance of living an open and genuine life, and fully stand behind what I say I believe in. I had to either get answers, or move on from the religion that was causing me so much discomfort. Religion is not a person or an entity. It's not a job you can't quit. The religion is not going to miss you. My family doesn't own the religion, and me disliking it shouldn't reflect on how I feel about them or how I was raised. The biggest breakthrough I had this year was realizing I didn't owe it to anyone to stay Muslim.
I do however, owe it to myself to be honest, with myself and everyone else. I can't afford not to live an authentic life. Admitting to my family and the religious community that I am filled to the brim with doubt was the bravest thing I've ever had to do. I am still facing the repercussions of my decision to come clean. It's funny how religious people preach honesty until you are honesty about something they don't want to hear. Its been extremely difficult and emotionally exhausting, but allowing myself to be vulnerable has made me stronger. This journey towards authenticity has been marked by a steady feeling of calm growing in my chest. I won't stop till my demons are done dancing.
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People close to me have asked me "why was it important to you to come out publicly? Or specifically, on social media?" I can't even begin to explain the impact it has had on my life. The amount of love and support I've received has been overwhelming! I've had several extra-extra long messages in my inbox about experiencing a similar situation with their family and the religious clashes, or just applauding the class with which I came out. I've had people unfollow me on Instagram, at an alarming rate. All I can say is I'm dropping haters like flies. I don't have time for people who don't have positive vibes or wish me ill things. I don't have time for people who think I'm going to hell for making choices that give me an open and authentic lifestyle. Frankly, I don't have time for people who want to judge me. The only person I judge is myself. I judge how I like myself this year, and decide how best to progress towards my goals. Like I've said before, walk unapologetically in the direction of your goals and dreams. Don't let anybody bring you down from your high on life, love, art, connections, or success.
For a long time it felt like an answer was missing, and the answer was to a question I didn't even know. So you can understand the general feeling of unrest I had throughout my young adult hood. I had feelings that I presumed were normal, but somehow I always felt out of place. I did things that I would later reflect on that are clear indicators.
Choosing to come out now seems so random in the grand scheme of my life yet at the same time perfectly understandable. My family is probably shocked and doesn't understand why I'm choosing to come out now and why it took me so long to do it. Isn't this something that should have been brought to light as soon as I felt it?
The difference between me and maybe someone else coming out to their family is that I was raised to believe that homosexuality was disgusting, that gay people where either sick, confused, or following a social trend. Homosexuals needed to be helped. They needed to be pitied and prayed for. So it was something that I always had in the back of my head and I pushed down deep inside me.
Throughout high school and college, I always had this open-mindedness towards the LGBT community that my family never understood. My mom told me later on, after I told her I was bisexual, or queer, that she had wondered if I was “that” because of my support for the LGBT community, having gay friends or being excited to design wedding outfits for two grooms. That's something that another Muslim or middle eastern girl might be comfortable with. Just be because I was friendly and supportive she suspected I was gay, which is wrong on so many levels.
People who don't really understand sexuality will ask me: “Well, how do you know you're bisexual?” And I say, “Well, how do you know you're straight before you ever slept with someone?” I ask them that. They really don't have an answer, but they just say they're attracted to that gender. I ask them about when they were kids and had crushes on little boys or girls. They just knew they were straight...or rather it was something they didn't really have to think about.
I came to the realization that we are raised our whole lives to be straight and everyone assumes you're straight, so you kinda just assume it too till you step back and look at yourself in the mirror. Now I'm like, well shit! Everything makes sense now! It makes sense how I have this masculine side to me that I never understood or fully accepted.
Growing up I was always a tomboy, but at the same time I always loved art and clothes and all the things that were stereo-typically feminine. That's probably what made it so hard for me to recognize my sexuality, because I never knew it could be such a spectrum. My idea of a queer woman was a super-butch lesbian with short hair, and that wasn't me. As a kid I would wanna play the prince in pretend games with friends. I would tie my hair back and dress up in boy clothes. My first kiss was my friend who was pretending to be a princess. I must have been ten years old. I swooped her low like I'd seen in the movies and planted one on her lips. Everything was fine until she told her dad the next day, and we weren't allowed to play anymore.
In middle school I had my first real girl crush. She had auburn hair, freckles, and hazel eyes. I remember thinking she was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen. She was just a kid, we were all kids. I don't even remember recognizing that it was a girl crush, because I was taught by society to know what it felt like to have a crush on a boy, but I never knew what it felt like to have a crush on a girl, which is different in a way. But, the only thing I remember is just really wanting to be her friend. It sounds so silly and cute but I remember when I moved away, I wrote her a letter saying I wish we could be friends forever, or something like that, and I gave her a little present. And, looking back on that, I was really crushing on her.
That's not something that was talked about in my home. I knew not to mention even being friends with a boy, let alone having a crush on him, so imagine talking about crushing on a girl! In my house, if you felt things for your same gender, that meant you were sick and twisted. You need to be fixed.
But now, I recognize that that's just the way my brain is wired. That's just the way that I'm wired. It doesn't mean that I'm a deviant, it doesn't mean that I'm being rebellious or trying to be a “snowflake” or any other of that bullshit. You know, people make it seem like its a choice, and it may seem like I am “choosing” to be bisexual or to identify as that right now, when in fact I'm choosing to be honest with myself and the world rather than live in denial of my true self.
I told one person, one close friend, and then that turned into coming out to almost all of my close friends. It feels public when all your close friends know and you can just be yourself around them, but its not public until your family knows, and social media knows. Because (sarcasm) every one knows if it didn't happen on social media it never happened.
Back when I first was identifying privately as bisexual, I thought to myself "Damn, this whole time I was involved in activism for the LGBT community, being a supporter and an ally, and I couldn't even admit to myself my feelings about women. How fake of me." And I had that guilt. But now I realize I have nothing to be guilty about. Everyone has their own journey and now it's my duty to use my voice in a way that helps other people.
My mom often asked me why I think its important for people to know. I know that secretly she wishes I would have kept it to myself. But I know that my voice needs to be heard. My mix of identities is so eclectic, that someone out there might identify with me and my story. There has to be another half-Syrian girl that is living in fear of how her family will react. I want to assure her that she is strong and will make it through this. That there are people who will support her, even if her family is utterly confused and disgusted at your existence.
Being queer is just a small part of my identity. On most days I don't even think about it, it's just who I am. The world needs to see people as multi-dimensional instead of putting them into boxes. I pray this story has brought someone hope and bravery.
I was only in Turkey for a total of four months, but I swear to you it felt like way longer. Something about the city just draws you in. Its so chaotic, everything is always moving, but then there are those small neighborhoods like mine that make you feel like you're in a village. What a weird combination, Istanbul. It was such an eclectic mix of ethnicities, yet it was still mostly Turks. People rarely spoke English, so I had to get by with gestures and the few words I had picked up along the way. The hustle and bustle. It blew my mind.
When I first arrived I learned that indeed, the English language was just as confusing and boring as I anticipated it to be. I was enrolled in the area called Kadikoy, right on the water, at a TEFL school for a certification. I had made the plan to teach English in Turkey to extend my stay with my Syrian aunts that were living there after escaping from the conflict in Syria. I hadn't seen them in around seven years, so I wanted to be around them for a while. During that time I learned how to take the buses and not get (that) lost navigating my way to and from the language center downtown. At the center I practiced teaching English to retired Turks from around the area, and they were absolutely charming.
After I was certified I landed a job at a university in an area also close to the water, called Uskudar. There I taught at a preparatory school for students going into university for the first time. I learned how nationalism was popular for young Turks in this day and age. How many students, especially the males, would boast about the infinite wisdom of their president. It was an interesting parallel to the presidential race in the United States happening at the same time.
I realized then that authoritarian leaders rise in every country at different times and for different reasons. But also that there seemed to be a larger plan in the world that was being pulled in different directions by strings shrouded in mystery. The question I always seemed to have on my mind was who the true puppet master could be. Every country seemed to have different stakes in this global game of thrones. From an outside perspective looking at the United States, it was clear to see that maybe we were no longer the first world power. It looked like Russia was battling for the top, and the U.S was struggling with its grip on the world.
This kind of shattered my glass ceiling, and shifted my perspective of the world. Things are really not all what they seem. My time in Turkey was marked by moments like this for me. Weeks went by with this feeling of transparency in time. I knew I was in a moment that would come to be marked down in history as a time of change. I kept asking myself what my place was in this giant story. That could be a result of the big-ness of a city like Istanbul.
The city was crawling with people. Each person walking along had their own story. Each had their own voice, that they could choose to keep silent, or they could use for change. There's a word for this feeling- being overwhelmed with the existence of each passerby's individual story- and I was feeling it hard in Istanbul. I asked myself, in this crowd of people, how could I possibly change a thing? I guess you could say I went through a minor depression, or at least a loss of purpose.
Then I had kind of an epiphany. I examined my own individual mix of identities. I came to the conclusion that there really isn't anyone with my same vision, voice, or perspective. My mix of identities had always contained being American-born, half-Syrian, Muslim-raised, artist and designer, third-generation kid who lived all over the globe, and most recently; queer woman in a heterosexual relationship. I had that last realization about a year ago now.
I had reflected on my childhood and young adulthood while in Istanbul, and the explanation was clear for the way I had been feeling. I had been bi-sexual all along, but I hadn't been able to get past the mental blocks nailed in my head by religion to admit it to myself. Things I had thought about, felt, and done as a young teen now made sense to me. I reflected back on having my first crush on a girl, back in middle school.
I don't remember thinking of it as a crush, though. All I felt was a strong sense of wanting to be closer to her...and that she was the prettiest girl in the whole class. She had auburn hair and freckles across her face. When it was her birthday, valentines day, or any other excuse holiday, I would make cards and gifts for her. I would make them for my other friends too, of course. But hers I would take extra care with.
I look back and remember small instances in time like that, before I even knew anything about sexuality and what it meant to be attracted to someone. Flash forward to this past summer at a job, and I knew for sure that I was queer. This was the confirmation anyone could have asked for. Ironically this girl had red-ish hair and freckles too. And she made my heart pound fast. I think what made it more alluring was that it was clear she was not straight either. I wanted to talk to her so badly.
It was in Istanbul that I found the strength to tell my family (my mom for now) that I was bisexual. She reacted okay. I knew my dad, with his cultural Syrian roots and religion, wouldn't really have the tools to deal with a discovery like this. I didn't tell him just yet. I knew I had to tell him when I could see him face to face, back home. I knew the transition was going to be difficult. I was revealing a part of myself I had kept in the depths of my mind for so long. I knew it would be hard for my family to adjust to the idea.
People ask me, how do you know you're bisexual if you have never had sex with a woman? I ask in return, how do you know you are straight when you are young and haven't had sex yet? They get it then. Its about attraction. Its about how your biology is wired. I didn't choose to be attracted to women, that's just how I feel right now. The only choice I made wasn't to have these feelings, but to be transparent with this part of my identity.
When I first began to identify as queer, I suddenly had this feeling of not being genuine. Through all the support I showed to the LGBTQ community, I still hadn't been able to be “out” myself. I knew it was time to change that. In this world that paints Syrian women as one thing, or Americans as one thing, or even Muslim-born women as one thing, we need voices saying no. We are not a monolith, we are individuals. Syrian women are not all desperate refugees, but are strong, resilient warriors. Americans are not European/white people, America is White, Black, Brown, Asian, Arab... and Muslims are not all terrorists, we are normal people with normal struggles, like juggling our identities and discovering our sexuality.
I learned in Istanbul that I am part of the many people who are missing links. We hover in the limbo between worlds, between identities. We show the opposite of the stereotypes people paint us as. It's voices like ours that will change the perspectives of the world. This realization gave me my purpose back. I have this vision in my head and I carried it back home with me. It's time to work.
Since I've been in Istanbul, I've picked up a job working as an English teacher for a local university. In my upper-intermediate class, we had a literature unit, and we took a trip as a class to the university library to choose a book. All the students gravitated towards the book 1984 by George Orwell. This is one of those books that is typically on a U.S high school reading list, but because of my atypical high school experience, I never read it. They highly encouraged me to, so I picked it up and finished it within a day. It was just the type of political conspiracy book I liked.
After I read the book, I began to observe the political atmosphere of the world as it stands today. I've always been a very skeptical person when it came to governments (thanks dad) and many people could call me a conspiracy theorist. I like to call it investigative. The most impactful piece of politics that affects me personally is of course the so-called “War on Terror”. Since 9/11 Arabs and Muslims alike have been demonized and used to fuel the fear propaganda media. After that attack, the U.S was able to march into the Iraq war with the screaming support of the U.S citizens. If you do any research at all, you know now that Iraq in fact had no connection to 9/11, and didn't even have any weapons of mass destruction. What was the actual reason, I wonder? What seems to be the only reason the U.S goes to war? You guessed it, fossil fuels.
From that point, I connected the dots. Who is the biggest provider of fossil fuels? Saudi Arabia. Our entire alliance is founded around the stuff. The Bin Laden family is from Saudi Arabia. On the day of the attack, the entire Bin Laden family was rounded up by the government and sent peacefully back to their country while all other aircraft were grounded. When I try to stress this point in my numerous debates on this topic, I strike this question: Let's say a notorious Mexican drug lord who had relatives living in the U.S committed a horrific attack on U.S soil, and then fled back to Mexico. Could you, in your wildest dreams, imagine the government finding his relatives and sending them back on their merry way to Mexico? No, its unfathomable. They would be held for questioning to find out where he was hiding.
Clearly there was something strange happening. Fast forward to today, and the Islamophobia-fueled fear propaganda machine is alive and healthier than ever. Back in the day we had Al-Qaeda, and now we have it's replacement, ISIS. Where did this group come from? I can tell you without a doubt that had the U.S not gone into Iraq, ISIS would have had a very slim chance of developing. This happened for two reasons:
How does this involve the U.S? As many people know they are the largest exporter of arms in the world. And, Saudi Arabia is their biggest and most loyal customer. So, Saudi Arabia causes systematic religious brainwashing of thousands of young men, those young men buy guns from the United States, and then go on to spread terror across the globe in the name of Islam. And, in the process, the pair continue their profitable fossil fuels alliance. Oh, and of course that's not all the U.S gets out of this partnership. The government now has an abundant source for fear propaganda.
The most powerful thing to own is not money, not oil, not even guns, but an idea or emotion. Fear consumes the mind and can make people paranoid. With paranoia comes hatred of the thing causing it Society becomes split. The government remains in control. The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States is nothing more than a business arrangement, and world dominance is the prize.
Learning to be vulnerable is probably one of the hardest personal battles I've ever had to overcome. As a young teen I suffered with severe depression that left me feeling broken and weak. During my recovery, I built an iron-hard casing around myself, my heart, and my thoughts. I was sick of being weak and pitied, and I told myself I would never feel that way again. I've always been a very passionate and emotional person, and for years during my recovery I kept all that emotion bottled up inside with a bubbly exterior.
At first it was fake, but after a while I actually became what I had been pretending to be. I was actually happy, fully and deeply happy. But, that same habit was still there. I knew how to be happy now, and I wanted to keep it up. Show my family and the world that Lena has finally got her shit together. No, she isn't about to fall apart again. What I never realized was that every quote-on-quote functioning person had an emotional break down every once and a while. People cried in front of others. They spoke out loud about their insecurities to their friends and family. They were genuine.
The biggest thing about not letting yourself be vulnerable is that you are in-fact robbing yourself more than anyone else. You are robbing yourself of the opportunity to be a sincere, open, and transparent person, and I can say as someone newly experienceing this feeling- there is nothing quite like it. I had felt for years that my inner self was made up of multiple layers...just like shrek being an onion ha ha...but totally relevent in this situation...and most people only ever met the first couple layers. Very few got deep, and you can bet no one got to my heart. That always had an unbreaking unconscious shield around it, saying “Don't care too much, Lena, cuz then you might get hurt. You remember how much emotions can hurt when they are exposed to the air”
Oddly, I had these delusions of being a mentally and emotionally tough person. I told myself I could handle anything thrown at me because I always had my trusty heart-shield that could bounce it right off. Only now, as I get older, am I realizing that you only get stronger when you face the resistance head-on. Until you let yourself fully feel everything, and externalize those thoughts and feelings, will you truly be strong. There is something incredibly powerful about being fully known as you are. I'm sick of the armor. I no longer romantacize mystery. I'm peeling away the layers year by year. I've never felt more vulnerable, and I've never felt stronger or more alive.
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I observe & write about society & culture.