What is your story of strength?
This makes me think about my upbringing and how I was raised in a religious family. There were three main lessons that I was taught that have given me strength in my life. Firstly, is that we have a responsibility towards the community around us. There is a Hadith by Prophet Mohammad that says, “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards.” Therefore, I am not only responsible for myself; rather I have to be conscious of the people around me. I have to think about how I can be a source of help for them. Secondly, we are responsible for our time; spending it wisely and being productive. Thirdly, the consequences do not matter. What matters more is that you tried. It’s okay to make a mistake and it’s okay to fail. In Islam, we believe that if someone tries and succeeds, he/she is rewarded twice, and even if someone tries but fails, he/she is rewarded once. How liberating is that? There is no penalty for trying, you will be rewarded whether you succeed or fail, so just try! This opens up the world to you and it frees you to go out and do good. These are the pillars from which I draw my strength as I make my decisions every day and fall upon those.
My source of strength also comes from my children. I ask for their advice all the time. Even when they were very young, I would explain my science experiments to them and they would give me their opinions on what the results mean. Each one of them is wise in their own way. They are a wonderful source of inspiration to me.
I also try to turn everything into a positive situation. My friends tell me that I am relentlessly positive and my husband says that when people see the cup half full, I see an ocean in a drop of water. It’s a driving force inside me that I turn the negative thing into a positive thing, otherwise I can’t do it. You have to be creative in order to do this, and I like to think that this creativity comes from reading. I have been a reader my whole life. I believe that the more you read, the wider and wilder your imagination becomes, so you become more creative. Anything negative can be turned into something positive. Also, I believe in something called, إحسان الظن, meaning that I always give the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t always serve me well though, because there are negative people with bad intentions out there. I just believe that there must be a reason that person is that way, so I try to empathize with them and try to work with them. I believe this about circumstances too. Whatever happens in life, there is a wisdom in it, that I may not understand now, but I might discover later. I try to think that, if this is the reality now, how can I turn it into an advantage. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good, but it’s about taking control of it and making it positive.
Everything that I have done in life has been as a result of this way of thinking. And I believe that when you are like this, you are a happier person. And when you are a happier person, you feel good and everyone around you feels good because happiness is contagious. It’s difficult to stay negative when someone around you is always positive.
Can you tell me about a woman in your life that embodies strength?
I don’t think there is only one woman. There are many different women and each has something that I admire about them. My students inspire me. They are the future. Their struggles are real, their questions are real, and their successes are real. When I see that light bulb go on in their head and their eyes sparkle, I’m inspired to keep going and to keep giving, regardless of the challenges that I face, and of course there have been many challenges and low points in my life, but I remember that I am doing it all for my students. The biggest thrill that I feel is when we get into a discussion with the students about a hot topic and they start sharing their emotions and their experiences and coming up with ideas, that’s the most profound feeling of strength that I can draw from.
This also applies to the women and men that I work with at We Love Reading, an initiative I started that aims to create a library in every neighborhood in the Arab world. These volunteers go out and read to children in their neighborhoods and when I hear about their experiences about their time with the children, how they feel empowered, and how We Love Reading has made a difference in their lives, I draw strength from this. This is Holy for me. In Arabic, we talk about the act of worship and the feeling of elation during worship. To me, working with these people gives me the ultimate feeling of elation.
Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?
I wanted to become a scientist my whole life. I finished my Bachelors and my Masters degrees in Jordan and in 1990, I applied to do my PhD abroad as there weren’t any programs in Jordan. I ended up getting accepted at the University of Cambridge, but I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it and I couldn’t secure any financial aid. I felt that was a failure because my dream was to become a scientist, and I couldn’t become one anymore. That’s when I got married and I decided to become a teacher, so I put that dream on hold. I wanted to teach others to think outside the box and to achieve the dream that I couldn’t achieve. I was trying to make the best of what I had.
Ten years later, my husband saw a Fulbright advertisement in the newspaper that was offering scholarships for PhD programs in the US, and he said to me, “Hasn’t this been your dream your whole life?” So, I retook all my exams, applied to the scholarship, and was invited for an interview when I was pregnant with my fourth child. I was actually supposed to deliver on the day of my interview, but ended up delivering the next day! And I won the scholarship! At that point, my family and I had to decide how we should arrange our priorities. That is when my husband, who was a lieutenant colonel in the air force, stepped in and suggested that we all go together to the US as one unit, so that I can fulfill my dream. After my PhD in the US, I was invited to give a talk at the University of Cambridge as a Professor. I never thought that the path that would bring me there would be so different than the path that I envisioned for myself. It took longer and it was a zigzag road, but sometimes failure is just a temporary change of path or direction until you reach your goal at a different time or place.
Also, when I started We Love Reading, many people told me it would not work, that I won’t make a difference with these kids and that I should be happy just doing my current job, but I insisted because I felt like I had a responsibility in the world and I had a solution that I knew would work. So, I read to kids in my neighborhood for three years. In a way, I failed to scale because it didn’t spread beyond my neighborhood and it was just me reading, but my patience and persistence paid off years later. We Love Reading today has not only established more than 1500 we Love reading libraries in Jordan but has spread to 32 countries around the world. I see this as a testimonial to the butterfly effect. When a butterfly flutters it wings in China there is a hurricane in the Atlantic. I was the butterfly in my neighborhood in Amman Jordan and now We Love Reading is a social movement that is spreading all over the world.
How can women better support each other?
The most important way to support a woman is to trust her. Don’t impose on any woman what you think is the right thing, because what might be the right way for you may not be the right way for her. We are different people with different perspectives and experiences. I cannot judge you or even begin to imagine what you have been through; therefore I cannot know what is best for you. I can only trust you and encourage you to trust yourself. A woman knows what is best for herself, her family and her community. Biologically, through evolution, the female species have been the caregivers and the nurturers. In our amygdala, we are always thinking how to keep our families and my communities safe. So trust her, she will do what is right. That doesn’t mean she has to be perfect, even if she makes mistakes, trust her.