In March 2019, I had the honor of attending a poetry reading by Najwa Zebian, a woman I have greatly admired for a while. As Najwa spoke, her soft, yet firm, dulcet tones compelling us to join her on a journey through heartbreak and betrayal, ultimately ending in glorious triumph over that heartbreak, it struck me as astounding how this woman — with her aura of unrelenting gentleness and positivity — facilitated an environment where a group of strangers came together in their hurt and hope, to find comfort in experiences that may not be the same, but felt familiar all the same.
Looking around the room, this group of strangers felt like friends, united in hurt, hope, and a familiarity and comfort in the words bestowed upon us by this incredible woman. Najwa’s presence took a group of unique strangers and united them, connecting us all through the commonality of pain and experiences that are more universal than they are credited for. By the end of the evening, I looked around to these strangers who, for all intents and purposes, were still strangers, but felt more familiar to me.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the wonder of Najwa Zebian.
For those who need an introduction, Najwa Zebian is an activist, educator, and best-selling poet of Mind Platter, The Nectar of Pain, and most recently, of Sparks of Phoenix. To sum up Najwa’s intent, one needn’t look further than her website, where she articulates her desire to use her “experiences of displacement, discrimination, and abuse” to “empower people to build a home within themselves; to live, love, and create fearlessly” whilst insisting that she is an activist to herself first and others second. After all, if you can’t advocate for your own needs, what could you possibly have to offer others?
In this exclusive sit-down with Muslim Girl, Najwa talks to us about why she learned to own her pain, redefine her autonomy and self-worth, and affect change through her prose, reaching out to those who need it the most.
Muslim Girl: To start things off, let me state that the subject matter of your poetry is so universal. You tackle these shared, communal experiences and yet, not everyone can captivate a global audience the way you have. You express yourself in a way that has appealed to so many. What do you believe it is about your writing that has resonated so deeply with so many diverse individuals?
Najwa Zebian: First of all, thank you for saying that. I think the fact that it’s so open and that there’s no shame, or trying to cover up certain feelings is what makes it so appealing. The words are very much to the point, and express how people are feeling. The rawness with which it is written, and how unapologetically it is written, is appealing to read.
Your latest work of absolute art, Sparks of Phoenix, transitions from the moment one is betrayed to—and I’m paraphrasing your own words here—the moment one rises from the ashes of what was meant to bury them. It seems that your poetry almost reflects a type of journey. Would that be a fair statement?
Yes, absolutely! When I wrote Sparks of Phoenix, I wanted it to represent a journey. I wanted it to tell a story as a whole, but also have the poems stand on their own and express a certain state of mind.
Would it be a stretch to say it may represent your journey?
My ability to write something like this stems from experience, and that stems from a struggle to understand grief. The cycles of grief that we go through are universal, and this book is trying to go through grief and understanding it. This was me wanting to convey an understanding of how difficult it is to rise from the ashes, to rise from any kind of traumatizing experience, while honoring the pain. I’ve gone through many experiences where I’ve had to rise, so I wrote exactly as I felt it. It’s about gaining sanity from trying to understand a situation.
I understand what it feels like to be in that space, to be taken advantage of, so I wanted Sparks of Phoenix to show where you can get by honoring where you have been.
Honoring the pain? Could you elaborate on that?
When we go through a painful experience, we want to forget about that experience. Let me use an example: when people struggle with forgiveness, it’s because forgiveness makes them feel like they are saying that what happened to them was okay. It makes them fear that forgiving means that they are saying that what hurt them was okay.
When you forgive, you get to see the pain for what it is, and give it the weight it deserves.
They want the pain they went through to be acknowledged. So, what they need to realize is that by offering forgiveness, you are not saying that whatever hurt you was acceptable or okay. You are acknowledging that this happened, and you are not ashamed to say that it happened. When you forgive, you get to see the pain for what it is, and give it the weight it deserves. This is the first step to healing from it. Of course, you can heal and honor your pain at the same time, but healing comes from honoring your pain. And that first step to healing starts with acknowledging your pain.
So you mean that it’s important to accept, acknowledge, and embrace your pain?
Yes. In a way, that means you’re not denying who you are. Just like a scar remains from an injury, this represents a scar on your soul; not there to define you, but to remind you how far you’ve come.
Tell us, why poetry as a vehicle to tell your story, as opposed to a memoir?
I define poetry as the language of the soul, which is the purest form of expressing yourself. I chose poetry because that’s how I felt most true to myself. Since poetry is the language of the soul, using it as a vehicle to express myself has the potential to reach the masses of those who struggle with expressing and finding themselves. At the end of the day, that’s my purpose; to be a vehicle for myself and the world.
Out of curiosity, if you did choose to write a memoir, what would you title it, and why?
You know, I haven’t actually thought about that! It would probably be reflective of a certain moment, but I haven’t thought of it yet.
Usually, a book title comes to me before or during the writing of it. The title for Sparks of Phoenix actually came to me before I started the book. I remember writing it down and copyrighting it beforehand. The Nectar of Pain [Najwa’s second book of poetry] came to me during, and Mind Platter [Najwa’s first book of poetry] came before as well.
Many are familiar with your story of speaking out against your sexual harasser. Was there ever a moment when you regretted going public with your story?
If someone approached you with the same issue, what words of advice would you have for them in terms of whether they should come forward or not?
I would tell them, “Your abuser becomes more powerful the more you stay silent.” I would remind them that they owe it to themselves and to any potential future victims or past victims to share what happened, not to bring their abuser down, but to end the control of the story over you.
As long as you have it inside you, you’re allowing it to be controlled by your fears — either of what people will think of you or what your abuser will do. The more you do that, the more power your story and abuser have over you. Some think it goes away with time. It doesn’t. It doesn’t go away with time, it gets more powerful. You don’t have to go public with your story in front of the world; just to those who need to know about it. Once you do that, you are no longer being controlled by the story.
So, something that was abundantly apparent at your reading is San Francisco was this amazing amalgamation of vulnerability and feeling for the words you shared with us. There were moments where your voice would ring clear and true, and others where you would be overcome with emotion, but through it all, there was a strong sense of peace encapsulating you, along with a sense that you were entirely at peace with yourself and your being. Is this perceived sense of peace an accurate representation of how you generally feel these days?
Nowadays? Yes. It is very difficult to go through that wave of emotion of wanting to dip into feeling, but I am way more at peace with myself than ever before.
Instead of following blindly and feeling helpless, I started stepping into my own power, and allowed myself to question certain rules and the presence of certain people in my life. I allowed myself to do that without the fear of exclusion and not being good enough. I became an active participant in my life decisions.
When you allow yourself to be as you are, and to allow feelings to move through you, even if it takes you on waves and tides, peace follows. Some days, you feel too much, but knowing that you are making that decision, that YOU are allowing your feelings to come to you and leave you, brings you peace.
How do you get to that point? Assume you’re faced with someone who is struggling to be at peace with themselves, how would you advise them?
It wasn’t one thing that got me there, it was a series of decisions I made. It was a journey of learning that only I am in control of myself and what I choose to do with my life. It was letting go of the power I allowed others to have over me. Not just people, but the rules, the beliefs around me, and the culture. Instead of following blindly and feeling helpless, I started stepping into my own power, and allowed myself to question certain rules and the presence of certain people in my life. I allowed myself to do that without the fear of exclusion and not being good enough. I became an active participant in my life decisions.
It’s not easy. It wasn’t an overnight thing. It’s easy to say you’ll do those things, but can you actually do it? I started with smaller decisions, which got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I shared my story, shared my poetry, and overcame my fear of standing on stage. I learnt, eventually, that the fear of making those decisions wasn’t greater than me.
It took years to be here.
A lot of people who struggle with self-acceptance must come to you for help, assuming that you have, in fact, achieved the ultimate goal of contentment. What advice do you have for them?
I would start by saying that I totally understand and remember feeling that way. It’s very normal. I would offer understanding, and not make them feel ashamed for feeling the way they do. I would say that this is the first step, that they’re asking questions.
Know that as long as you’re looking for external validation, as long as your definition of yourself is based on how willing those around you are to accept you in their lives, that’s why you’re struggling.
If you struggle with your self-esteem or self-worth, what you need to do is look at your life and reflect. Look at yourself, the people around you, the rules you are expected to follow. Know that as long as you’re looking for external validation, as long as your definition of yourself is based on how willing those around you are to accept you in their lives, that’s why you’re struggling.
Instead of tackling life based on fear and need for validation, tackle it by projecting who you are and your beliefs out into the world and if people accept you, they do. That doesn’t mean you’ve changed. It means that you stuck to your beliefs and that there are others who accepted you for it.
Did you ever have an “aha!” moment where you felt like things just fit together, like they made sense?
I have those moments so often. You know those moments where you have an epiphany and things just fit together? I’ve been having those so much recently. I get so much clarity about how I want to live my life, where I want to end up, and there’s this sense of conviction that this is the direction I want my life to take.
You’re getting me in real time here, because if you had asked me three years ago about the moments of epiphany I was having about how I wanted to live my life, at that time I was teaching and that was the path I wanted. I was convinced. Now, looking back from this exact moment, I understand why I thought that was my future. Because as much as I loved it, I wanted safety, security, and stability, and now that’s not what I want. I mean, everyone wants those things but I don’t want them with everything I do.
It goes against growth to always want stability. Your need for stability stops you from wanting to take risks and having new experiences and meeting new people. I’m empathetic to the younger me, but now I know that’s not what I want.
The same thing would happen if you had asked me about a moment a year ago. I wouldn’t attribute this realization to one moment though, because it’s a journey I’m still on.
At Muslim Girl, we are well-versed in the experiences that come with being dissenting voices in the face of the dominant status quo. We will always stand for a woman’s right to choose her narrative and we will never stop insisting that there is no authentic, correct way to be a Muslim woman, especially when it comes to something as superficial as what she wears.
As a result, we tend to get abuse from both sides of the see-saw, whether it’s for promoting stuff that goes against “proper” hijab, whatever that means, or for being too conservative for non-Muslim circles. And yet, everywhere you look, even governments are trying to dictate how women appear in public. If it isn’t Bill 21 in Quebec, it’s a mandatory abaya in Saudi and Iran.
As someone who has gone through her own style revolution — which yielded a significant amount of unwarranted opinions on how a woman should present herself — could you tell us a little bit more about your journey to redefine how you dressed?
It’s really good to hear that that’s what you’re promoting. Our world is so in need of that, especially girls in our community. They need to be reminded that their worth is not as small as the way they dress. I get a lot of messages that say “You’re the reason that my sister went on the wrong path”, and I’ll often write back, “Which path are you referring to? The one where I wrote three best-selling books? The path where my words are reaching people across the globe?” Of course, they’re referring to me removing my hijab, but it’s so ridiculous.
I always say this, you could go to the moon and people will still define you by what you wear. It’s so strange because we don’t do that to men!
For a woman, her clothes are either too tight, or too loose. She’s either wearing too much makeup, or not enough.
Society is putting this type of burden on women, and when girls constantly have to worry about what people might be saying about how they choose to present themselves to the world, how can we expect them to be empowered and to excel?
It’s crippling to feel that shame of constantly being questioned for why you’re showing skin. It’s crippling to have people comment, “Why do you need to show your arms? Why do you need to show your legs? Why do you need to show your hair?”
The stress of feeling like you’re doing something wrong by doing that makes you feel like something’s wrong with you! I’m at an age where comments like that won’t get to me, but they might get to a 14-year-old, or a 15 or even 20-year-old.
I was free when I was wearing the hijab because I had chosen to wear it, even though I was young when I did so, but I was equally free when I took it off because it was my choice.
To have your whole value system questioned because of what you wear is crippling. It has been almost a year since I’ve taken my hijab off, and I still get the same intensity of comments and questioning.
What I’ve learned over this journey is that you cannot, and will not, please everyone. Come back to yourself and the resilience you gain from being faced with all this.
And this doesn’t just apply to taking the hijab off. It applies to choosing to cover as well.
When I took my hijab off, I had to be really careful about accepting compliments on the decision because I had many people congratulating me, claiming that I had freed myself. The thing is, I was making an active choice, so my freedom was my ability to choose, not the fact that I had taken my hijab off. I was free then, and I am free now.
I was free when I was wearing the hijab because I had chosen to wear it, even though I was young when I did so, but I was equally free when I took it off because it was my choice.
I have to be careful about accepting the comments that imply that I’ve liberated myself because I have a responsibility to honor and protect girls who choose to cover. It’s respected and it’s their right.
When I made the decision to no longer wear hijab, I went through these various states of doing research. I lived a religious and sheltered upbringing, so I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing. I remember when I started my research, the first article that came up was attached to a video where the host said that taking the headscarf off is a sign of weak faith! She said that if you’re contemplating taking it off, it stems from a lack of faith and connection with God, and I felt very taken aback. I mean, I wasn’t questioning my faith, but I can see a younger girl keeping her headscarf on out of fear for what was in the videos, but is that faith? Keeping the headscarf on for fear of making the wrong decision?
How did your family approach, and learn to accept, your autonomy in this matter?
One thing that I always tell people is please remember that people around you, especially those who have been with you since the very beginning, since your birth, they will adjust to any decision you make. They’ve known you to be a certain way, and suddenly the change you’re approaching them with will raise questions.
They will question why you’re making a decision. My parents asked me why. They wanted to know, why now? It wasn’t easy for them. They’ve seen me in it since I was 13, so they wanted to know whether I did it because we were in Canada, whether it was because I was around people who didn’t share the same values. They were worried about what might come next.
Some who make this decision choose to say “This is the decision I’ve made and you have to accept it”. Others will say “I don’t care if you’re angry”. My approach was that I said “This is the decision I’ve made and I want you to accept it”, and I answered their questions. They are at peace with my decision but that reconciliation came with them having to see that this was not about wanting to rebel, or just wanting to reveal my body. It was a decision that felt natural to me and who I am. They had to see that it wasn’t a cry for attention, and that it didn’t happen for the wrong reasons.
Once they saw that, they don’t even talk about it anymore. They saw there was no change in my manners, values or behavior, and that I took this decision and followed through with it in a respectful way. They see that I’m progressing with my life in a positive way. They had to see that. After all, these are people who witnessed your journey since the day you were born.
Before I even made my decision, I had to understand why I was making it. I myself had to understand that it was because it was what I wanted, and not as a form of rebellion.
Often times, in our religion, there’s this big responsibility on parents until their children are married, so it’s important to remind them that they’ve raised you into adulthood and now, what you do is not on them. Unfortunately, those beliefs and that sense of responsibility are so ingrained that it can be hard to move past it.
In any sheltered community, intense focus is placed on reputation, and it’s the family’s reputation as a whole, and one wrong move can affect it. It’s so sad that this is how it is. It’s sad that a girl’s behavior always impacts the family’s reputation, but often only when it’s negative. As long as you’re doing positive things, no one’s making a big deal. That’s so sad.
Do you have any final messages for our readers who may be struggling with their sense of authenticity and acceptance in a world that is constantly bludgeoning them with conflicting advice on right and wrong?
I would remind them to not allow anything that doesn’t make sense to them to dictate their lives or stop them from being who they are. I invite them to remember that they are only human, and I’m not encouraging them to make mistakes, but we all do and that’s the only way we learn and grow. Don’t let the fear of falling down stop you from trying.
Thank you so much for your time, Najwa. Your prose has brought strength and clarity to so many, so as a final word, if you could recommend a particular poem for someone struggling with their sense of self, which would it be?
I would say that if you’re going through pain and want to feel understood, read The Nectar of Pain. If you’re trying to rise out of your pain, read Sparks of Phoenix, and if you’re struggling with defining your sense of self, read Mind Platter. And obviously, remember that “These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.”
To indulge in the wisdom Najwa has to offer through her prose, please visit her website to purchase your copy of Sparks of Phoenix. For more, follow Najwa on Instagram.