In the world that we live in today, you’ll hear the word “ally” or “allies” a lot. You’ll hear it in politics, and you’ll see it in wars. You’ll hear it in relation to feminism and the role men can play to be allies to women. You’ll hear it around issues of race and how white people can be allies to people of colour. You’ll hear it about LGBTQ+ communities, and so much more. However, you should also know why it’s important that you hear it when it comes to your circle of friends. That is something I have learned from one particular friendship in my life, more than any other.
A friend is exactly what their name suggests – they’re friendly. They usually tell you what you want to hear and they agree with you on most occasions. You build a bond based on the mutual and common traits between you both. Friends will always be there to share the fun and good times, as well as to give you a helping hand during the bad. Allies however don’t just help give you strength to fight, they fight with you – for you. They don’t sugarcoat things and they don’t have their own agenda in complementing you or in being polite. They call you out on your shit. They tell you things exactly how they are, and they do it because no one else will. They’ll envision your dreams with you and wish you success as much as they wish it for themselves. Importantly, they’ll also tell you when you’re not working hard enough towards those goals and dreams. They tell you when you’re not living up to your own expectations, morals and standards. Most importantly, they accept you fully and truly for who you are, not how you are. An ally might be a friend, but a friend isn’t always necessarily an ally.
That is what Ruth is to me. Ruth is the friendship in my life that truly opened up my eyes to what it means to have an ally. It’s the example I share when I talk about what being an ally truly means. Ruth has always lived as she preached. She’s a feminist, positive and hard-working person who only speaks words she understands the weight of. So, as a person of colour, as a woman, as a minority – having Ruth stand by me as an ally in each of those aspects never shocked me. These were things Ruth already preached and lived by. As the years went on, it became clear that Ruth didn’t just stand as my ally in social issues and constructs. She stood as my ally in the personal side of things too. In fact, she stood by me through just about everything.
When I would argue with my mom growing up, Ruth was never the friend who told me what I wanted to hear. She never took my side simply because we were friends. That’s a hard thing for a teenager to do. No matter if I was right or wrong – she would always calm me down, hear me out, and then defend my mom. She would remind me of the things I knew I would come back to remind myself of; how much my mom cares for me, how she’s only trying to protect me, how she’s alone and scared in raising me and my siblings. Ruth always reminded me of those things, because she took the time to get to know my mom over the years, and she took the time to understand the complex relationship my mom and I share. Not many friends would do that, but an ally does.
Allies truly take the time to know us from within. They take the time to learn about all of the things that make us who we are. They take us for who we are, not how we may act or behave at times. They understand our hearts and its intentions. From day one, Ruth took it upon herself to understand and learn about my faith and how important a role it plays in my life. She opened herself up to learning about Islam through me. For the next 7 years, when I would feel far away from God, Ruth never imposed her own beliefs on me. As someone who is unsure about God’s existence, she would turn to me every single time I voiced this struggle with faith to her and simply say: “When’s the last time you prayed? I’m always in your house and when the call to prayer sounds, you never get up to pray. Maybe you need to start there?”
You see allies hold us to the values and things we believe in. Ruth always understood that faith was one of the biggest I had. She knew my faith was so much tied up with what is in my heart, she was the first to comfort me when I ran to her crying about deciding to take off my hijab. When I told her I was scared I might never trust myself enough to wear it again, she simply told me that the type of Muslim I was at heart, never had anything to do with the clothes I put on my body. Allies believe in us because they see the truth of who we are at heart, at the core.
There is greatness in each of us. While we might be aware of our potential, very rarely do any of us brave to tap into it. We can rely on allies to not only see the greatness within us, but to expect it. They are the first to push you towards your dreams. They actively motivate you. Ruth isn’t just the type of friend that will tell me how much she wants me to succeed – she’s the first to like my work, buy it, share it and support pushing it forward. Allies hold you to your own potential, morals, values and standards, not their own. This way, whether it’s your career, personal development or your relationship – allies are helping you become the best version of yourself, not what best suits their own agenda or impression of you.
Perhaps the most important thing about an ally is influence. Your allies will have the biggest influences over you. You both subconsciously and consciously learn from them. I have learned so much from Ruth, whether it’s about jobs, music, relationships, womanhood, or how to just be a compassionate human being during tough circumstances. Ruth and I have never seen eachother for our differences. Today, we are alike in so many ways, because we have influenced one another and grown together over the years. Our differences never mattered next to the one thing we shared in common – our genuine care and need to look out for one another. There are very few people who can fully accept you for who you are. Who can listen to absolutely anything you say with zero judgement. Who can accept you as you grow and change and make mistakes. Over seven years, Ruth has never once turned a blind eye to my changes. She has always supported and nourished the good of them and she has been honest and real with me when I was taking wrong turns. This is a woman and a friend who constantly inspires me to be better towards others and to do better by myself. This is what an ally truly looks like.
So, look at your circle. Where you stand in your circle of friends, do you see any allies? Are you surrounded by people who would go the extra mile? Who push you and inspire you? Who influence you and lift you up to be the best version of yourself you can be? Do you have one ally or many? Or do you just have friends? And most importantly, are you being an ally to yourself? Are you being an ally to others? You see, just like friendship, allyship is also, a two-way stream.
Last month, Ruth and I travelled out to London, UK to go see Childish Gambino’s live show at the O2 Arena. This tour is Childish Gambino’s last ever, and so naturally, Ruth and I felt so humbled and grateful that we managed standing tickets to witness true magic on a live stage. Ruth introduced me to Gambino back in secondary school and we have been appreciating his music and art together since. Despite a huge catalogue and immense variety of sound, I think it’s safe to say that Ruth and I’s favourite thing to sing along to is “Donde Esta La Biblioteca?” which he performs in the TV show, Community. He (Donald Glover) who plays Troy, performs it with his on screen best-friend, Abed. I’m not saying my best-friend and I do it better, but we’re pretty confident we knock it out the park.
I travelled out to London two days before the concert. I had been working a full-time job I hated the entire month before. I had also just received some pretty letting down news regarding my masters. I was worn out and extremely tired. So much so, that I actually forgot my passport, purse, charger and the concert tickets – all of which my mom had to drop out to me at the air coach. I needed this trip away more than I had even realised. Luckily, two of my cousins live in London, so once I arrived I could relax in the comfort of a family member’s home. Ali was away, but Ahmed and I got to go out for the night. He treated me to a Turkish cuisine dinner and we went to go see the movie, ‘Us’. It was so nice to catch up with him because I never get to see much of him, and he’s my favourite cousin. The next day, Ruth arrived to London. We went for a cute brunch and walked around Oxford Street picking up some last minute necessities. We headed back to Ahmed’s where we all chilled for a bit, before we took our bags to our Airbnb apartment. That night, Ruth and I headed out to Tonight Josephine for a few quiet drinks. I just want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the barman at Tonight Josephine for taking such good care of me all night. He made me cocktails from scratch and put precise care and effort into each flavour so as to enrich my drinking experience as someone who doesn’t consume alcohol.
The next day, Ruth and I decided to go explore Camden Market. We got to see a different variety of cool shops and stalls. We had dinner there too, before we headed back to get ready for our main event. We were running a bit late and arrived as H.E.R was mid-way through her second performance. I absolutely love H.E.R and she is practically 90% of the music in the playlist I use when I’m taking nudes, trying on lingerie and so on. Her vocal performance was mesmerising and she really set the mood for Gambino’s show. I love when artists bring really good opening acts along, because it really enriches the whole experience. Ruth and I were already pretty far up in the crowds of people standing waiting for Gambino.
When Gambino emerged out onto the stage, there was an electric, but simultaneously still energy in the room. I had never felt a room feel so still while buzzing with excitement all the same. For many, it felt like the realisation as he came out for the first few moments, that this could very well be the last of Gambino as we know him. This tour, everyone was well aware, was what he had announced to be “the last Childish Gambino tour” ever. While some people think that he will re-emerge under a different name, and some believe that this truly may be the last of his music all together, one thing was certain about the night – the one man show resembled anything but an artist ready to farewell his craft.
Shirtless, wearing only white linen pants that resemble the ones he infamously showcased in ‘This is America’, Gambino graced the stage with warm love and wild eyes. He danced across the stage, moving in a way that could only be described as the merging of sex and humour. He kept the crowd on their feet the entire night, intuitively moving between rap and jazz, slow jams and more hyped up tracks. Ruth and I, simultaneously looked at each other during ‘Summertime Magic’, as we rocked back and forth to the beat of the music – I knew we hadn’t felt this alive in so long. That was something that Gambino truly evoked within everyone that night – a feel of liveliness. Claiming “we’re in church tonight”, “I want you all to feel this with me – we’re at church”, one thing was clear; with Gambino as the pastor, the whole crowd was ready to worship.
While ‘Heartbeat’ didn’t make the set, Gambino varied from new works to old, leaving some of the best for last. ‘V. 3005’, ‘IV. Sweatpants’ and ‘Sober’ had the crowd wilding, mosh pits and dance circles quickly forming, before Gambino brought the whole room to a hushed standstill. Taking the lead, Gambino led the choir with ‘Redbone’, everyone singing at the top of their lungs, the room emotive and unified for one final hymn.
The night came to an end, and I think everyone was already replaying it in their heads as soon as it ended. This simply cannot be the last we get of Childish Gambino. One guy embraced me after the show and asked if I had been at the concert – when I told him I was, he gave me a big hug and just said: God bless, I hope you had a good time, I hope you feel alive”. I was stunned by the amount of love Gambino had created, not just from him to us, but from us to one another. Ruth and I decided to sit in a nearby bar while we waited for the line to the underground to die down. There, we met Natalie and Josh, who we wound up spending the rest of the night with. Two of the nicest Londoners I’ve ever met, we got to know each other as we waited for the line to settle. We eventually got on an underground to Floripa – a little Brazilian club in the city, where we danced to the best music the 00’s had to offer. We also got what I must say was one of the best döner kebabs I’ve ever had – and I’ve tried them in Germany. I don’t know if it was the hunger talking, but I had never enjoyed a kebab more than that night.
While the entire trip to London was amazing, and seeing Gambino live is an experience that I will never live down, there was one thing that elevated the whole experience. I got to meet up with one of my friends from Alexandria, who I hadn’t seen or spoke to in a really long time. Ruth was so excited to finally be meeting any of my Egyptian friends, but I felt so warm when I saw his friendly face that I had missed for so long. As I left for Gatwick, I felt so rested and genuinely happy. I got into my seat on Gatwick Express, put in my earphones, and listened to Childish Gambino for the entire duration of my journey back to Ireland.
Childish Gambino had this Muslim worshipping in a church, and I know God ain’t even gonna be mad about it.
Samia Taha is a 56 year old Egyptian/Irish mother of three. She is a lawyer by degree. Her husband, Ahmed Elshamaa, passed away in 2001, leaving her widowed. Since his death, she has fully devoted herself to raising her three kids. We spoke honestly and vulnerably about the effect of his passing on her mental health, her life before family and children, and her decision to raise them in Ireland and the expectations and assumptions made about single parenthood.
MERIEM: What did it feel like to lose your husband so young? How did it affect your mental health?
SAMIA: You know what? It’s funny because I never thought that I would be the person part-taking in this interview right now. I never thought I would be the kind of woman who would dedicate my life to family and children. Growing up, I was a very spoiled little girl. My dad adored me, I was definitely his favourite. I only cared about my career and my looks and my clothes and friends. I was very carefree and completely irresponsible. Despite our culture, or the fact that my mom was married at 16 – I was never taught to clean or cook. I wasn’t expected to. I thought I would get married to someone who would spoil me the way my dad did, and I would just continue my life as a fun carefree girl as a married woman, with a lot more freedom and time. Then, I met Ahmed. He was a doctor. He was also the complete opposite of me. He was responsible. He held everything up for his family. He was talented, not only in medicine, but in singing, writing and football. He could have pursued any of them and he would’ve excelled in it. He was quiet and humble and I was loud and a troublemaker. For whatever reason, he saw something in me that he never let go of. We fell in love. Ahmed fought the whole world to be with me – and then the world stole him away from me anyway. We got married, and we moved to the States, to Chicago, where he was working. It was during my time in Ireland, I was visiting my sisters, when I got a call that he’d been in a car crash. He spoke to me, told me he was fine and he actually wanted me to stay in Ireland and to enjoy the rest of my trip. The next day, he went under coma, which he stayed under for a month and a half before he passed. I visited him twice a day, every day. Deep down, we all knew it was a waiting game for when his heart would give in and stop – but I refused to take him off the support systems. Ahmed fought for me and I was determined to fight for him. I had my first daughter at the time, who was three, my son who was a year and a half, and I was pregnant with my third. When his heart finally stopped – my whole world changed. I felt like I had been hit on the head and was running around dizzy for the longest time. I became depressed and was put onto antidepressants for years. I wore black for 7 years. Not even an single input of grey or white or any colour over the years, always black – at weddings, birthdays, anything. I wouldn’t allow myself to forget. This was also the time when I gained a lot of my weight. I lost a part of me. My other half. No words and no one can express or do justice by the type of man Ahmed was, nor the way he loved me. This man had the power to change the world, simply by being the way he was, in his job, with people, within himself. And he loved me like I was the only woman that could have ever been made for him. He showered me everyday, in songs, letters, wisdom and laughter. He never, ever, let me down – not a single time since the time I first met him. He truly was my knight in shining armour. It’s true what they say; the good die young. I miss him every single day.
MERIEM: How did you manage to get back up onto your feet after enduring such heartbreak?
SAMIA: I went to our family GP, and then I went to therapy. I was on antidepressants, which affected my pregnancy, definitely. I gave birth to Mihar in September, 3 months after my husband’s death. Although therapy helped me, the medication I was on made me feel numb. For as long as I was on them, I didn’t feel like I could properly give to my kids or be a part of their lives. I definitely think medication is necessary in some cases and helpful to lots of people, but just for me and my body, I began to feel like I was distancing myself from my problems and being negligent of my responsibilities, because I was so dazed and numbed from my pain and my reality by the amount I was on. So, I decided to stop taking them. It was hard at first, and probably not wise to do so without consulting my GP, but I woke up one day and knew I didn’t want to take them anymore – that I was going to be okay without them. That was the first step of my journey. Getting myself off my medication. I realised then, that I was solely responsible for my children now, and I would have to start making decisions on my own. It was extremely difficult because I had to be both mom and dad. Sometimes I feel guilty, because I feel like I was so busy trying to be both that I forgot that they need love and care too, not just discipline and protection. I feel like while I was trying to be strong for them, I might have been hard on them in the process. All I knew was that I was going to have to be their rock. Ahmed was no longer around to be mine nor theirs. That was one of the hardest things at the beginning; recognising that while I was losing a husband, my kids were also losing a father. Every time I saw fathers with their kids, I would fear the day I would have to try to explain to my little ones why they didn’t have one too. Every time I saw my sister’s husbands playing with their children, my heart would break for mine. I knew I was never going to be able to shield them from missing the love and warmth of having a father. It broke my heart when my first daughter, who was old enough to grasp that her dad wasn’t around, but still couldn’t understand why, would call my brother (her uncle), dad. She knew she was missing that figure, without being old enough to understand who that figure was. Just that he needed to exist next to a mother. Mom and Dad, together. I remember Meriem’s first day of school – I cried and cried and cried. Their first time for everything, was so hard on me. I hated that Ahmed was not there to witness every milestone they achieved. I hated that they couldn’t share that with him. It was hard to accept that we would never share a single important moment as a complete family together – especially when Ahmed was the one who longed for children and a future as a family, more than I ever did. He dreamt all this up with me. He wrote stories from scratch that he would read to Meriem and Muhammed. He wrote Meriem letters. In the end, he wasn’t around to see any of his dreams for his children come true. Ultimately, I decided to be happy and content with the time I got with Ahmed. I realised that there are some people, (especially in Egypt where arranged marriages can be quite common), who have husbands, or wives – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have love. Losing a husband is one thing and losing the love of your life is another. They don’t often have to be the same thing, but for me they were. I decided to be grateful and to understand how lucky I am to have had real love in my lifetime. That I felt true love. That I will see Ahmed again, and that we will get to make up for all the lost time. I never re-married or was even interested to, simply because I already married the man of my dreams. Some people never get to. I would never trade places.
MERIEM: How did you make the decision to move to Ireland, alone, with three kids?
SAMIA: The decision to move to Ireland was hard, but it was also crystal clear to me that it was my best choice moving forward. I didn’t want to continue living in Chicago. I hated it to begin with, and even more so after it became associated with Ahmed’s death. Our friends in the States wanted me to stay, but I knew I couldn’t. I considered going back to Egypt, but it wasn’t logical. Ahmed’s family wanted me to go back to Egypt, and I wanted to be with my mother after what I had went through, but I knew that Ireland was where I needed to be. I loved Ireland. Well before I got married, I used to visit my brother and later my sisters in Ireland. I loved how quiet it was. I loved the nature and the people. It made me happy. I knew for my children, the education and society they would be raised in, in Ireland, was much more beneficial for them. I knew they would be safe, I knew they would be raised in a society where they would fully develop and grow into their own selves. I didn’t want to go back to Egypt because there’s a very negative outlook on widows, divorcees, or single parents in general. I didn’t want to expose my kids to a society that thought in that way – explaining the death of their father to them was hard enough as it was. Like I said, my siblings were also living in Ireland – it didn’t make sense for me to go and live on my own in Egypt, when my family was in Ireland. I needed them to be around me during that time in my life. Irish people made living in Ireland a very right decision for me. If I had any doubts before I settled in Ireland, once I arrived and put my decision into action, those doubts disappeared. I made friends who genuinely changed my life moving forward. Irish people are one of the world’s kindest and most tolerant nations. I never felt alone. I never felt like an outsider, even before I got my citizenship. The friends I made, helped me raise my kids by giving them a loving community. Two friends particularly, Eddie and Marie, became like grandparents to my kids. All my friends became like extended family members, they surrounded them and gave them so much love. I still have a key to my house kept with select friends, in case of anything.
MERIEM: Was there any fear you had concerning your kids living in Ireland or in a Western society in general?
SAMIA: Of course, but they were slowly put to rest. I was afraid they wouldn’t be engaged with the Arabic language the way they would be if they were raised in Egypt. I worried about installing Islamic values in their lives, and if they would struggle with their faith, living in a non-Islamic country. I realised though, that this would be my responsibility, and that it didn’t matter where they were living. I took them to Arabic and Islamic school every weekend, where they learned Arabic and Quran growing up. I made sure to speak Arabic with them more than I did English and I constantly took them back to Egypt to spend time with their dad’s family. The thing is, a lot of people have a very negative image of their kids being raised away from Islamic countries and societies, but I appreciate it beyond words that my children were not. I saw how my kids’ education shaped them, how their friends respected their differences and how they learned to stand up for the things they believed in. One thing I tried to teach my children was that faith has no colour, language, country or certain qualities you need to have. I taught them to recognise what they believe in, and to hold onto that no matter what and to never let anyone interfere with that. Including me. They don’t let anyone affect their mindsets, but they also don’t allow me to interfere or impose on the values or opinions they hold dear that I might not necessarily agree with. It’s interesting, and definitely frustrating at times, but it fills me with pride that they are so sure of who they are, because I never was growing up.
MERIEM: How has your faith or religion helped you keep yourself above water?
SAMIA: My faith gave me answers when I didn’t even know what questions to ask. When I wanted to stop taking my antidepressants, I would pray to God about if it was the right decision. The same applies for my move to Ireland, and just about every decision I’ve ever made. As you might imagine, there have been some extremely hard days for me on this journey. There have been times when I wanted to give up, times when despite all my faith – I wanted to end my life. Times when I didn’t know what to do, when there was no logical nor visible solution to a crisis I might have found myself in. Then, out of nowhere, God opens a door, gives me a miracle, and tells me to hold on for a little longer. People who tell you to “pray” as a solution to mental health issues, don’t understand mental health. I have guiltily done the same thing with my children at times. I learned that faith is there for you to reach out and use, not for someone to give it to you or try to shove it down your throat. I learned that from my daughter, Meriem, when she was going through one of the hardest times in her own life. I learn a lot of things from my children everyday, and I think the best thing God gave me was three beautiful children to share this journey with. Despite all the hardship of having three kids to raise on my own, the journey following my husband’s death would have been much harder for me if I didn’t have them with me. I might have still been on antidepressants, still wearing black, still numb. I feel a lot more alive now, because of my kids, and because God has been by my side, looking over me and guiding me.
MERIEM: What do you think/how do you feel towards the views many Egyptians and indeed, Arabs hold towards widows, divorcees or any single woman for any reason?
SAMIA: It angers me. Here in Ireland, I was never asked once the reason for being a single mother – no one cares. No one interferes in anyone else’s life. If you want to share whatever the reason is, it’s respected. In Egypt, people interfere with everything in your life, and on top of that, when you do share and confide in people, people judge you and fail to respect something as sensitive in your life, as a loss of a loved one or a divorce. In Egypt, women who are divorced or widowed are frowned upon, and looked at as “less than”. They’re pitied, and treated as if they need to be looked after. People are suggesting they re-marry and trying to shove men and marriages into their lives because they don’t think a woman can survive on her own. When people would see me do a “man’s job” such as speak to employees who might be doing a job for me, or meeting up with contractors for our house in Egypt by myself, or whatever, there was this negative look and opinion held about me. I never cared, but it hurt to know. I see how my children have come to understand that their mom can do anything on her own, she doesn’t need a man to do anything. My daughters particularly have grown up to be the same, and even though they are neither divorced nor widowed, they aren’t even married yet – I see how people in Egypt look at them when they see them travel, interact and do everything for themselves, by themselves, without me, without partners, without their dad. I feel lucky to have avoided that for the most part and for having been able to shield them from that too, by choosing to live in Ireland.
MERIEM: What are your ambitions for your children? What do you want for yourself in the future, after dedicating so much of your life to them?
SAMIA: My biggest ambition for my children is for them to be happy. Happy in who they are. In their jobs and careers. In their families. I want them to be secure, of course. I want them to understand the importance of helping people, and of being kind and generous to people. I want them to stand up for justice and to be honest people. I hope they fulfil their dreams and that their dreams inspire dreams in other people. I want all the hardship we endured together to help them in their lives in the future, and to have taught them that nothing comes easy, but that brighter days are on the way. As for myself, I fear life after my kids settle down away from me. They have been my only priority and focus for the last 20 years. I don’t really know who I am without them. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognise myself anymore. I can’t remember what that little carefree girl looked like anymore. But, as scared as I am, a part of me is excited to discover myself in the future. I want to take on two projects in my future; I want to open an orphanage in Egypt, to help kids who might not have been as lucky as my kids were to know at least one of their parents. I also want to go back to my passion for interior design and fashion. They’re the main ideas on my future plan, and the rest I’ll figure out when the time comes. I want to secure my kids in their jobs first, and then I can start shifting a bit of my time and focus to myself.
MERIEM: What advice would you give to any woman who has recently become a single mom, whether widowed, divorced or other?
SAMIA: I would say, that a lot of people, and they could be close to you or far – but a lot of people are going to try undermine you. They are going to question your ability, as a woman, as a mother, as a human being. I want to say to her, that all the strength she will ever need is in herself. And in her kids. They will give you strength and light when you are too fragile to find it in yourself. They will keep you going on hard days – you are not on this journey alone. You can create the best opportunities and life experiences for your children, and when you see them grow up and become responsible adults – when you reap what you sow with them, and see all your hard work pay off, you will feel so grateful for your journey. I would tell her to be-friend her kids, and to remember that they too are dealing with this circumstance and change in their lives. If she is widowed, I would tell her to keep the memory of their dad alive – to understand that stories and memories help us feel connected to loved ones even when they are no longer here. If she is divorced or single, I would say if possible, to let the kids keep a relationship with their father. I would tell her to keep good friends and family around her, and to believe in herself and to trust in her power. If I can do it, trust me, anyone can. Also, it’s Mother’s Day in Ireland this weekend, so I would like to wish every mother, no matter where they are in the world, whatever their circumstances may be, a very happy Mother’s Day.
Hader Serour is a 22 year old Irish-Egyptian. She was born in Egypt and moved to Ireland at the age of 11. She is an Engineering student at DIT/DUT. I met up with Hader to discuss her move to Ireland at such a crucial age and time in her life. We talked about her studies and the increasing pressure that came along with it. We also discussed her experience as Fullbright’s 2016 awardee and more.
Meriem: What did you struggle with most, when trying to settle in a new country that was so different to the one you knew? How did it affect your mental health?
Hader: To give you some background, we first moved to Mullingar. You know, being in Egypt, I thought my English was great – I was getting 40/40 in all my English class tests. So, I moved to Ireland thinking my English would be great, only to find that the only thing I could manage was “Hi. How are you?” My accent was terrible. It only got worse when I was enrolled into school. When I was in Egypt, I was the popular girl in class, and when I started school in Ireland, I was the “foreign” kid. I came into 6th class, so everyone already had their own group of friends, which increased the pressure on me to fit in. It was extremely hard for me to adjust and to try to adapt and to fit in. I got bullied a lot and I struggled to even enjoy school. The language barrier was the hardest. When you you’re learning English in Egypt, it’s all grammar – but here, I was learning everything through English; maths, history, geography. I didn’t even know what “divide” or “multiply” were. It’s crazy because now my English is better than my Arabic but at the time, it was the hardest thing to learn. When I first came, I was so scared of the Gardai for example, I didn’t know that they don’t even carry guns. It’s kinda funny how naive I was about my move to Ireland.
Meriem: How did you keep yourself focused and motivated when aiming for a course like Engineering in a school system that was so different to the one in Egypt?
Hader: For the first five years of my time in Ireland, in Moate, I was just the “foreigner”. I felt like the locals had better opportunities – and this is not to say that Irish people and the Irish school systems aren’t fair, they are, I just mean it in a sense that, for example “Mary and Shauna went to primary school together, their parents know this person, who knows this, and so on, you know?” So, I didn’t really motivate myself. To be honest, I hated school. The thing is, for the longest time, I didn’t know that I wanted to do Engineering, but even when I did – the points for Engineering here in Ireland are so low in comparison to Egypt. In Ireland we have a much better school system, but in Egypt we have a harder school system. In a sense, that making Engineering is impossible for some students in Egypt. Here, I could just do it as a level 7 with the points I got in my CAO. I had everything down on my CAO, and I don’t think my motivation for my education kicked in until college, and until I found out I was going to do Engineering. I felt like then, I had to prove to myself, to my parents, to everyone really, that I could do this. First year was nice – I started meeting new people, joining societies – because the more people you meet, the more you learn and the more you get to know about the things going on around you.
Meriem: What was the biggest cultural shock for you between Ireland and Egypt?
Hader: I think religion. As in, the role religion plays in society. Like, in Egypt, I would hear the azaan all the time, I saw hijabis everywhere. It was a big part of my daily life. I came here, and I remember my shock at stuff like people kissing on the street, or being so open with their love-lives in public. I think, drinking too. Drinking was a big thing. Like, in Egypt we have designated places that sell alcohol. It’s one shop that is specific to that. And it could be towns or miles between one and the next. Here, seeing alcohol infused into every part of society was weird. Like, even taking a turn at Tesco, for example, and seeing a whole section for alcohol, it was crazy to me that you could just purchase it as a part of your grocery shop. Pubs are everywhere. Stuff like that. I did find Irish people to be a bit cold. They keep to themselves all the time. In Egypt we interact a lot more, as neighbors, as peers, as a community. I didn’t feel that when I came to Ireland. There’s no obligation or social standard to be involved with people.
Meriem: Let’s talk about Fullbright. What did it mean for you to be Ireland’s 2016 awardee for SUSI Environmental Issues?
Hader: It meant the absolute world to me. I didn’t even think I was going to get it. I decided to apply three days before the deadline! I was going back and forth between my professor’s office, checking if the English was alright, getting references. I didn’t know why I even went for it – I don’t usually show interest in college emails about programmes or anything like that. But, I applied. And I got the interview. I didn’t know that they only pick one person from the entire country until the interview itself, when they told me. I really didn’t think I was going to get it when they said that. When I got the email, that I had won Fullbright – I cried. It was one of the best experiences of my life. To meet and travel with 22 other Europeans and live with them. To learn about what’s happening in Ukraine, but what’s also happening in Italy, or Denmark – I had never met anyone from Scandinavia before. To be with people for one common cause which is environmental issues, but at the same time, be living together, growing closer, kind of becoming like a team or a family, you know? It was amazing. You’re becoming a little group of friends, and now we’re like best-friends who meet up like twice a year or whenever we can to catch up. We’re also a part of the US Alumni Association, where we encourage others to join/apply for programmes like the one we did.
Meriem: What do you do to re-engage with yourself or to recharge your mental health when you feel like you’ve been too hard on yourself?
Hader: To recharge my mental health, I usually try to go back home to Westmeath and stay away from Dublin. I usually wouldn’t take the day off college, I tend to try to power through it, but recently I took a whole week off from college and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. Now, things don’t get to my nerves as much. I also have an expensive habit of booking flights when I’m really stressed or feeling down. It usually helps me get through college because I know I have a holiday in a month or whenever it is, to look forward to. I also take myself out and get some food or order a takeaway and chill out and watch Netflix.
Meriem: What advice can you give to a student who might be settling into a new place or who might feel like they can’t achieve the same as their peers because they come from a different background?
Hader: I would say to never take the fact that you’re different in a bad way. Take it as being unique – whether it’s that you look different because of a scarf, or your skin colour or whatever it is – take it as empowerment. I know it’s easier said than done and I know that there will be days when it will get to you, but if you know that you want to achieve something whatever it is, then being ‘different’ won’t matter to other people. When I used to wear the scarf, I used to think that I would find it so hard to work in a restaurant, but when I did, people didn’t even care. People will take you for whatever you have to offer. Just push yourself out of your comfort zone and you will adjust one way or another and overcome that feeling of being ‘different’ – I promise.
Kayssie Kandiwa is a 20 year old Business and Marketing student. She works part-time as a copywriter. She is also a poet and a mental health advocate. I got to talk to Kayssie about her relationship with music, dance and writing, and about how they’ve helped her with her mental health. We also talked about her passion project, Royal Integrity.
Meriem: How do you use dance/music/writing, each respectively, at times when your mental health isn’t it’s best?
Kayssie: Mental health has always been massive for me. By nature, I have always been pretty confident. Hence, when something challenges my identity, takes away my control and ultimately hinders me, I truly shatter. A big milestone in my mental health journey was when my godmother passed away – it was like this flood of confronting an existential crisis, but understanding you must go on without having a why or a how. No words could suffice, no strength for actions – I needed rest but my body wouldn’t permit me. Before I would’ve wrung my eyes dry, tapped aggressively at my phone notes until I was basically desiccated and speechless. Between these immense breakdowns of feeling intense emotions, I’d take mini-breaks to pray for strength and ask for a breath. I’m not too sure when I truly began healing or even how – but I remember singing. Singing with my cousins, with my sisters, on my own, for people. It was frustrating at the time, because for a year, I couldn’t pray or write, but it’s almost as if my singing would carry me and it carried others too. I’m not sure where – but it did. I feel so boastful admitting this – but my own voice soothes me. It’s like I’m giving myself a hug – and there’s nothing more beautiful than that to me. After all, I’ve been through the hateful thoughts, all the crying with myself – more so than my friends and family. Just as I’d feel abandoned, if they didn’t console me in those times of grief – in the same way, I hold myself to that same expectation. As for poetry, well, poetry requires patience – for me at least. Though I’ve been writing longer than I could sing or dance, it takes much more thought. This is why writing has remained the source of my self-discovery. In times when I need dissembling, placing all things that make me under this massive microscope to rebuild myself, I write. Suddenly all those abstract concepts and feelings that I need to accept, but do not completely understand, are challenged. Also, handling themes and researching on symbolism helps concoct a smell to the feeling. Smells that prompt people, moments and events to mind in a new connection, and somehow everything that was once black and white is captured in distinctive hues with dimensions and grip. Finally, dancing. Dancing brings me joy. It encourages me to cherish all the love that I experience around me. It’s not about being good (Trust me, I was called a plank for half my life, and when the drink kicks in, the truth shows.) But if you follow my Instagram, you’ll see I’m constantly recording videos of mini-routines I’ve probably persuaded people into curating with me. My work colleagues, my cousins, acquaintances and mostly my siblings. What you don’t witness, is how we all shout at each other for not being on beat, not turning on the camera, laughing at each other’s careless mistakes and someone threatening to leave because it’s taking “too long.” But it ends up looking pretty decent in the end. I believe this is what love really looks like — it’s messy, imperfect, and full of fighting, but when you go back to bed — you remember how persistent in loving you all these people have been. And quite honestly, this brings me joy.
Meriem: Which of the three do you feel has spoke to you the most and why?
Kayssie: If I had to pick, I would say singing. There’s a soulful and powerful element that not only speaks to you or sounds pleasant, it awakens the spirit. I was listening to an interview by Sheryl Sandberg where she precisely talks about her journey of resilience and healing. She describes a time where she was grieving bitterly and started singing a song from her childhood called “Oseh Shalom”. It wasn’t until years had passed that she learnt that the song was in itself, was a sacred song of grieving. Translating to “may the one who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us.” This is why I’d say it would be the hardest for me to give up. Just the reassurance and hope it gives me that the world just doesn’t end with me, and connects me to all that is living around me on a deeper level.
Meriem: Can we talk a little bit about Royal Integrity? What does it mean to you to be able to bring something that means so much to you, like art, to others?
Kayssie: Royal Integrity is more like my life mission statement, and though it gives me anxiety thinking about it sometimes, I’ve just accepted that it is who I am. I don’t know, it seems as if it’s almost taboo to put yourself first. You’re automatically seen as “self-absorbed, inconsiderate, selfish, stuck up” and not to mention it’s cooler not to right? That’s what society tells us. But I’m a firm believer in loving yourself through and through. It’s not always easy when you feel like a downright dope, but it’s the recipe to a fulfilled life. It’s reclaiming the power around you and nurturing yourself in the way you would a child or a younger sibling.
Meriem: What’s been an experience or moment of Royal Integrity that you’ve cherished most?
Kayssie: A moment I’ve truly cherished? I got an email mid-year, last year announcing a poem I wrote “You’re So White” was going to be presented and discussed in a high school in America by Seventh Wave Magazine. The thought that this next generation of women and men would carry a piece of my poetry, reminding them to be elegantly bold in being who they are inspires me until today.
Meriem: What’s one thing you learned about the power in being authentic and being yourself?
Kayssie: I rarely question my authenticity – it’s a blessing. However, it takes time and work to uncover what that is, because I am constantly changing, which means I’m constantly uncovering new things about myself – things like somehow I’ve fallen in love with hamburgers, and now that’s all I think about – the plot twist is that up until a year ago I hated them. There are things you never appreciate about yourself unless you are constantly allowing yourself to try and feel the way we do. Not holding ourselves to our primitive form because we are constantly transforming. Imagine a butterfly spent its whole life fighting itself (on top of fighting for survival) to remain the caterpillar it was, never acknowledging the beauty of being a butterfly. Whenever I’m in question of who I am and what I stand for, in the core, I always go back to six year old me – so innocent and still pure of heart. I think of ways I can make that girl look at me in awe, things I would tell her, giving her words to voice herself, and encouraging her in all her ventures and thoughts – it’s the easiest way of encouraging myself without feeling too vain. In allowing myself to encompass and channel everything that is ultimately and authentically me, I’ve been reconstructing the boxes I have placed myself in – allowing room for growth, not only for myself, but others too. Whenever I am upset, I open my notes and I journal. I journal how I feel, why I think I feel like this, I sympathise with those that have hurt me, and I create a mantra. Here are some that I find myself repeating: 1. I will be courageous. 2. I will love big, wide and deeply. And I will be brave in doing so. Even though our generation calls it a little too hipster, suspicious and weird to love too much. This is who I am, and that’s okay. 3. I will allow myself to feel upset, but when it’s time to be present, I will be presentand I will allow myself to laugh and be happy. But more practically, I’ve incorporated a morning routine of listening to “Super Soul Conversations” by Oprah. This week, I’m practicing vulnerability and empathy with others around me and most importantly, myself.
AIKK is a 21 year old artist from Alexandria, Egypt. He currently resides in Florida, USA. AIKK is a musician, actor and writer. You can follow him on IG here: @aikkyasser and check out his EP on SoundCloud here: https://soundcloud.com/aikkyasser. I got to converse with AIKK about the world of music and film. We also spoke about representation, keeping his mental health a float in a tough industry, and the importance and art of storytelling, whether through sound, paper or screen.
Meriem: It’s no secret that the entertainment industry is one of the hardest to break. How do you stay focused/motivated on days when you feel like giving up? What is your muse in doing what you do?
AIKK: As cliché as it may sound, but giving up was never an option. Simply, I can’t see myself doing anything else. Inspiring or motivational words are most definitely aiding, but never needed. As for a muse, I must admit, the one unarguable muse is a woman. Art is ubiquitous, reading a good piece of writing or listening to a touching tune can start a spark in me and stimulate creativity, but a woman? That’s an eternal fire in my bones who’s ember isn’t extinguished until the next one arrives. How could I not be inspired and ready to soldier on?
Meriem: How does music differ to acting in your life? Which do you prefer and why? How have they each contributed in finding yourself?
AIKK: I don’t see much difference, both are platforms of expression. Perhaps what I can’t seem to express in one, I’ll try and find a way around it in the other. It’s not that I prefer one over the other, but music was my first love. I always fancied being on film, but I saw acting or cinema as my mistress. I’ve had a guitar since my adolescence, so I could claim myself as a musician. But I had no idea how to start acting or where to go. As for finding myself, I don’t believe I have, and to be honest with you, I frown at the notion that I should either. I’ve been on a quest for the past five years to “find myself”, but it’s too convoluted of a tactic with no end sight, so I’ve given up on that inquiry. For the time being I’m focused on creating myself based on the ideas that attract me. If I see a trait in someone I admire, I steal it. If I see something in someone that turns me off, and I don’t share it, then I am proud of myself. But then again, I am a performer and I fear that I have adopted such a con in my day to day life. One of the many things I detest of who I am (for the time being), is adopting different personas depending on who I am addressing. Some may see it as being adaptable and in so, a noble trait, though I remain unsure. Being superior to your former self is the ultimate goal, but nothing is that easy when you’re still learning to walk.
Meriem: What do you feel is missing in the acting/music sphere right now that you are hoping to contribute to? Or perhaps, the missing space you’re hoping to fill?
AIKK: There’s nothing missing, all that’s been needed to be said has been said. All that is needed to be said will be said. This interview is insignificant in the realm of an indifferent universe, yet, publishing it remains exceptionally important for the improbable possibility that it may be the one thing a fortunate soul needed to see. There’s enough art to be admired for the end of time. We all have marvelous stories in us to be shared. If you are as fortunate as I am to feel a divine calling under your skin to say something, then go say it, it will be the greatest fight you’ll ever partake in but what is to come out of it will be greater than anything you ever imagined. And we will all benefit from hearing it. I hate the term “entertainers”, but as performers, eventually what we seek is attention, recognition and approval. It’s a sinking boat of self-loathing and glorifying the grotesque. What a circus!
Meriem: What does making your own movie mean to you? What did making this movie unleash in you?
AIKK: Everything and nothing. It means everything because ever since I came back to Florida from LA, it’s been a constant battle to make sure my soul remains intact. To make sure that I remain untouched by life. I didn’t want to turn dull or dormant. I don’t know where exactly I wanna go next, but the one thing I’m certain off is that I must run, run away from Florida and close that chapter for good. I try to refrain from telling myself that I dislike it here so that my remaining time doesn’t get any worse, but as you can tell, I haven’t been very successful in doing so. This film must succeed because I see it as my ticket out of Florida. And it means nothing because it is simply what has to be done. I must create. Whether it works out or not, I’ll march on to the next project and so on. Well, the movie hasn’t been made yet for me realize what has been unleashed in me. The script and casting are over. We should start filming soon. To be as vulnerable as possible with you, the making of this film serves two purposes. The first is getting me out of here and onto greater things, but the second and most important reason, is giving me something to look forward to. If I don’t have a vision of something I want to accomplish, regardless of how significant or possible, to keep me warm at night, I’ll die. I will have committed the ultimate sin of betraying myself and the audience.
Meriem: Across all three (music, acting, writing) it is undoubtedly clear that there is an authenticity and rawness to everything you create. How do you stay focused on being true to yourself and how might you wash yourself of any influence/trends that might interfere with your work?
AIKK: I use influences and trends to my advantage. If you had asked me a year ago what genres do my projects fall under, I would’ve panicked and mumbled nonsense. Now, I see power in being genre-less, being unable to be categorized. I can constantly reinvent myself without limitations. Rawness and authenticity simply mean that I am saying what I want to say, regardless of the medium or tools used along the way. I have too much of an ego to speak someone else’s words. But don’t let that trick you, I steal from everywhere, constantly. Anything that speaks to me and in so, even my stealing is authentic.
Meriem: Do you ever feel like your mental health is subjected to an immense pressure to succeed? How do you deal with days when this may be the case?
AIKK: Yeah, but what is success? How do you define it? My mama is a teacher, she’s been a single mum throughout most of my life, she doesn’t make that much dough, yet somehow we always had a roof over our heads. The way I see it, if I can make a teacher’s salary making art, I’ve succeeded. The past few years altered the way I view things, and I’m not sure if it’s for the better or not. I don’t see nobility in failure nor poverty, but I seek humor in it as a means to roger on. I never minded the idea of living in a cardboard box until I make it. The only sense of pressure really came when I saw myself needing to be able to supply for the woman that I loved, the lifestyle that our background dictates to be offered at a time where my hands where tied. But I didn’t give that thought much of my energy as I am eventually content with who I am. Also, as a consequence to my mother’s unfortunate taste in men, I am subject to losing my hair, a big no-no when you view yourself as a sex symbol/Renaissance man. So I put myself under self-made pressure to succeed before my follicles fail me. To be honest with you, my mental health hit rock bottom early last year, not due to self-inflicting blows but rather my surrounding environment, aiding to the cause of why I want to leave this place. The way I deal with any sense of pressure is by being concisely aware of the harm I may be putting my mental health under. My mental health remains my number one priority, so I exercise keeping it calm and give no power to anything that may cause it harm.
Meriem: Who in your aspiring field has inspired you during hard times and why?
AIKK: Xavier Dolan, without a doubt. I mean the guy is living proof of simply do what you like and the world will applaud you for it. He made his first film “Jai tué ma mère” at 19 or 20 and went on to win at Cannes. What could be more inspiring? In his acceptance speech for his 2014 film, “Mommy”, he said “Je pense que tout est possible à qui rêve, ose, travaille et n’abandonne jamais.” “I think that everything is possible for he who dreams, dares, works and never gives up.” Cliché? Maybe, but it’s the shot of espresso I never knew I needed.
Meriem: Has/does the issue surrounding representation amongst the film industry ever affect your mental health/confidence as a POC/Egyptian artist? Do you think that there are people paving the way for yourself and for other artists to come or is there little to no general effect, but rather, “exceptions” being made?
AIKK: I decline to believe that my background interferes with my chances of making it in any industry. It’s such a limiting belief. Whether representation plays a part or not, it doesn’t concern me. I see what I want and I can’t stop till I get it. Most studios eventually want money, they get money by giving the consumers what they want. The people want diversity and representation so the field is becoming more and more diverse, one can’t deny such a thing. How can I not be excited?
Meriem: Can we talk about your journey to LA? What was one thing you learned about yourself from that time in your life?
AIKK: My trip to LA remains one of the dearest highlights to my heart. Once I turned 18, I dropped out of college and drove from Florida to LA. A fine line between courage and stupidity and I am not sure which side I tipped my toes in. I took the opportunity of being a stranger in a strange country to take my time during my travels. I got to wake up to a field of sunflowers in Memphis, and almost cause a fire in the Grand Canyon as a consequence to boosting my cigarette flicking skills. I must admit, driving across the western frontier, I felt like I had already made it. I remember arriving to LA and immediately not knowing what to do or where to go. Eventually the night greeted me with a free concert on the Santa Monica pier. I chose the parking lot at the beach as my transient home for the first couple of nights until I was kissed by my first driving ticket. I’d wake up every morning at around 6:30, the sun would barbecue my car and I couldn’t sleep with the windows open for safety. I’d shower at the beach and head on to tackle the most exciting days. I loved my time in LA, I got an agent within the first month in the most random fashion. Within a few weeks of being signed, I was auditioning on the Warner Brother’s lot. The 18 year old me was happy. I wasn’t fond of the roles I was auditioning for, going full circle, now that I’m in Florida and I’ve decided to write my own film and shove it down directors and producers throats at festivals, rather than waiting for an audition. Wish me luck. Oh, I also learned that life has a sick sense of humor, but what else can you do but laugh about it.