i found the pen of my life...

By Farah Al-Sharief

A series of photos I’ve taken on a Lomography camera in 2010 between here and Germany. The film stayed in the camera until it was developed a month ago. 

Isn’t it funny how you and I will often call an occurrence ”normal” just because it is common? It’s not as funny as it is ironic. When a friend of mine experienced cold feet after getting engaged, she said “I know cold feet are normal.” 
How normal are cold feet? I asked myself. I still don’t know how normal it is to experience anxiety right before or after signing on to a serious commitment, but I certainly do know that it is a common feeling. 
What constitutes normal and abnormal occurrences in science, society, health? If normal just meant common, and uncommon therefore abnormal, then cannibalism would be normal if it became common.  View high resolution

Isn’t it funny how you and I will often call an occurrence ”normal” just because it is common? It’s not as funny as it is ironic. When a friend of mine experienced cold feet after getting engaged, she said “I know cold feet are normal.” 

How normal are cold feet? I asked myself. I still don’t know how normal it is to experience anxiety right before or after signing on to a serious commitment, but I certainly do know that it is a common feeling. 

What constitutes normal and abnormal occurrences in science, society, health? If normal just meant common, and uncommon therefore abnormal, then cannibalism would be normal if it became common. 

Every Day I’m Cyclin’

I don’t know about you, but I like my period. It’s a sign that I’m healthy and not impregnated (by imaginary husband, Johnny Depp of circa 1991).

Growing up in the conservative Muslim Saudi Arabia rendered menstruation, more or less, a break from religious propriety. Since women are forbidden from praying and touching the Quran during menstruation, I made the best of it. I thought oh well, I’ll just consider this a little, or much needed “break.”

Nail polish as such is also believed to have negative side effects on abolition because it averts water from nails and cuticles, making the ritual incomplete and utterly useless. Wearing polish is therefore avoided by people who choose to pray. Otherwise, a manicured person would have to remove and reapply polish between prayers. But just like oral contraceptives stop ovulation from ever occurring, having my period meant I didn’t have to worry about manicures interfering with my abolitions.

In turn wearing colored nails or clear lacquer was a kind of secret sign that a girl was on her period. Consequently, if she wore nail polish all the time (for more than 7 days), this meant that she was not praying and ultimately doomed to hell fire for all eternity. But if her friends and teachers were nice enough, they would simply annoy her into praying. 

It took young adulthood and my early 20’s to figure out just how much my monthly cycle affects my mood and perceptions about life, love, and death.

In a healthy woman, the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary glad then to the ovaries to release an egg that travels into the neighboring Fallopian tube. Such is the process of ovulation which I feel almost every month as cramping on either side of my abdomen. (This pain is referred to medically as mittelschmerz, a German word literally translating to “middle pain”). This sensation, in combination with waking up so fresh-faced that I ditch my makeup bag, tells me where I am in my cycle namely towards the end of the follicular phase.

This is when I am happiest because my complexion improves significantly over night and I feel pretty. I don’t have to worry about chocolate cravings or bloating either. But very soon after, my mood starts to decline as I approach the end of the luteal phase when my body is preparing for menstruation. 

I can’t deny the existence of PMS because then I’d have to explain my monthly mood swings, head aches, cramps, bloated bellies, and general feelings of FML-ugliness-anxiety that manifest so cunningly a few days before blood flow.

Really, there’s no other time in my life, on a month-to-month basis, when I feel so shattered asking myself why women are made in such a way that makes them suffer so much pain. As if societal gender inequality wasn’t enough, I have to suffer from menstruation every month.

I look at myself in the mirror and think of all the things I’d like to change in my face. Then I look at my sanitary pads and wonder when Procter & Gamble will invent the perfect leak-proof, comfortable pad. But when I glance over the two ravaged, family-size potato chips bags on my nightstand, I see a bottle of Essie nail polish and a feeling of comfort embraces me. As I begin applying No Place Like Chrome (a fun, silver metallic shade), I’m reminded of why I like my period. 

لا أستغني عن :

My favorite albums (1):

Placebo ‘Without You I’m Nothing’

Of course I was introduced to Placebo in 1999 through the teen flick Cruel Intentions. That summer after watching it for the first time at the cinema, I rushed to the record store the next day and bought Placebo’s self-titled debut. But I thought, I needed ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ because it had ‘Every You Every Me’ (the main song from Cruel Intentions). I was so excited to reach home and take my first listen. It was so pleasant and melancholy. Placebo became my second favorite album by the band.

I attended one of their concerts in Düsseldorf in June, 2007. Steve Hewitt left the band the following October. I haven’t bought a Placebo album since. 

PJ Harvey ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’

My online friend Moshe Shai from the USA, who I’ve been in contact with since 2001, introduced me to PJ Harvey that year. Stories had just been released.So I made it my first venture into this world of women and love and relationships that is PJ Harvey’s songs. It was a revelation. I was in the 11th grade listening to her on my Philips disc man. Alone in my room I sat thinking about everything that she said. The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore was one the songs that made me glare with bedazzlment and shame. I think I was mortified. I thought “Oh…I’m listening to a song about whores?” But I was a 15-year-old, naive Saudi girl. I found it rebellious, too. 

I went on to acquire every one of PJ Harvey’s studio albums. Though I never listened to ‘White Chalk’. I don’t know why.

PJ Harvey resembles to me the image of a woman I’d like to be; strong and vulnerable and mature. 

Moshe and I finally met up 11 years later. It was a revelation, somewhat like Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. PJ Harvey suddenly attained more meaning to me. 

James ‘The Best of James’

This obscure English rock band called James. How in the world did I ever find them in that Filipino-run music store near our house in Khobar? I just saw this cassette tape with a cute, colorful cover and bought it. Because it looked pretty. Once played on my Sony Walkman, each song sounded better than the next. I thought for once I could “judge a book by its cover.”

Then, ‘Born of Frustration’ came on. 

Who put round eyes on the butterfly’s wings 
All this frustration 
Who gave the leopard spots and taught the birds to sing 
Born of frustration 
I’m living in the weeds where nothing is the way it seems 
Where no one is who they need to be 
Where nothing seems that real to me 
'Bout time we filled our lives 
Upon the walls of gold no solid ground 
The world is spinnin’ endlessly 
We’re clinging to our own beliefs 

Sudden impact. Words so violent. Threw me off right then and there. How wrong is it that I’m listening to this song? How right?

Test Of Time, from Vogue (August, 2012)

Teaching remains a life’s passion for 101-year-old Bel Kaufman, who’s learned some lessons of her own along the way. 

I have been teaching for about 80 years, but I can remember the moment I first knew I wanted to stand in front of students forever. It could have been 1931 or 1932. I was a student at Hunter College in New York; it gave me an extraordinary education. Our teachers weren’t just people who had a license to teach; they were scholars. Blanche Colton Williams, the grande dame and head of the English department, used to take staff and her favorite students to tea at the Plaza Hotel. She always wore an orchid. She taught Anglo-Saxon, and thanks to her, I knew half of Beowolf by heart. Then I studied Middle English; that’s Chaucer. I still love “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” which says, “Husbondes at chirche dore she hadde five, Withouten other compaignye in youthe!”

My first teaching experience took place during this time, when one day, my friend Elizabeth invited me to visit her class at the Hunter elementary school. I stood before her students, who were maybe six or seven, and what I remember so vividly is all those little ones with their eyes fixed on me waiting. I knew I had to give something interesting and valuable, something that they would perhaps remember all their lives. I have never lost that feeling. 

I had come from Odessa, a beautiful city, and Moscow, where I lived during the Russian Revolution. I remember several regimes: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Kerenskys. During the Bolshevik regime, my baby brother was born. I was nine. While I was wheeling him in a carriage in front of our house, two young women in leather jackets approached me. We used to call them “the new women.” They lifted my brother out of the carriage, put him in my skinny arms, and wheeled the carriage away, saying, “We have babies also.” Our family was the enemy of the government not only because we were Jews but because we were bougeois; we had our own house, a cook, and a maid. 

We left Russia for New York when I was twelve, and we settled in the Bronx, where my widowed grandmother had a large apartment. My father was a doctor, but he couldn’t practice medicine in America with his German diploma (he had gone to medical school in Berlin). He took and passed the first state boards offered, in Trenton, New Jersey. He answered mostly in Latin, because he didn’t know English yet. Since there was no reciprocity in New York State, he had to practice in New Jersey, so we moved to Newark. 

I remember my highschool teacher, Mr. Stock. Of course, I personally wanted to be a writer. My grandfather was Sholom Aleichem, the celebrated author whose “Tevye the Dairyman” stories were made into Fiddler on the Roof.  I loved Mr. Stock because he treated all of us as equals; if we were absent and missed a lesson, he would say, “That’s too bad; we were hoping to know what you thought about the topic.” He shared his passions, such as poetry, with us. I am passionate about poetry, too- Russian, English, French, and German. German poets are great; I hate the language but love the poetry. 

Over the years, I have written many short stories for different magazines; “A Love Letter To A Dead Teacher” was a story I wrote about Mr. Stock. I said that when he quoted Shakespeare’s “Who can say more than this rich praise, that you alone are you,” I knew he meant me. So did the 34 other students in the room. He made each of us feel as if he was speaking directly to one of us. 

When I was born, my name was Belle, but when I was writing short stories, my agent wanted to send one, “La Tigresse,” to Esquire, a new publication for men only. They did not publish women. My agent suggested that I spell my name B-E-L to sound male. I did, and I was the first woman published in Esquire, and the name remained. 

After getting my master’s degree in English and comparative literature at Columbia, I could have done research or taught at the college level, but I felt that college students were already finished- I would be of no great influence to them. I wanted to show high schoolers, for whom I could still make some difference, the joy in reading and writing and learning, before the malaise of later life. I applied to be a high school teacher, but I ran into my big problem: the Board of Education. I kept flunking the orals on the teachers’ exam because I had a slight Russian accent. (Not like my mother, who never bothered learning English. We were on a bus once and my mother said, “Drriverr, drriverr- let me off!” A woman behind us asked my mother, “Are you Russina?” My mother wheeled around, incredulous: “How you know?”)

The first time I took the teachers’ exam, I passed the written and classroom tests with highest marks but was flunked on the oral test for “foreign melody.” (They didn’t dare say “accent.”) So I took many speech courses to get rid of the rolling R and the Slavic intonation, while I was teacher in high schools as a mere substitute. 

The following year I passed the oral exam, but this time I was given a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one I knew by heart. Instead of pretending to read it, I recited it: “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare….” That was a mistake; they didn’t like that. A letter came, saying, “Dear Sir or Madam” (they never discovered I was a madam), “failed for poor background in English and poor interpretation of the poem.” This time I was really angry. I went back to my professors, who wrote them of my literacy. I graduated from Hunter magna cum laude and from Columbia with highest honors and received awards for English literature and writing skill. I also wrote to Edna St. Vincent Millay, care of her publishers, and told her my story. She answered herself in a long letter, saying that my failure must be a clerical error. “I myself could never have described my poem so well,” she wrote. I photostatted her letter (we didn’t have Xerox yet) and sent it to the Board of Education. It met on my one little case to vote. I got a letter saying, “Dear Sir or Madam, your failure stands. However, if you take the exam next year we are confident that….” I did and  I passed. I have heard that ever since (and I don’t know if this is true) candidates to teach English in New York City schools are given poems by very dead poets. 

Over the years I have had many students who surprised me. I remember one who wrote a book report on the same book he had reported on the previous term. I chided him; he looked at me with injured innocence. “I read it again!” he said. 

The High School of Performing Arts was a dream to teach in and very rewarding. It was near Times Square and no longer exists- it’s now part of LaGuardia High School. I remember Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s wife, Marie, with a brand-new shiny shovel breaking ground for it. When you get to be this age, you’ve been around. It had only 600 students in a little redbrick building with a drooping flag. Those kids came from all boroughs carrying their musical instruments, arriving before the school opened, staying after it closed. They’re now grand-parents! I still see some of them. At another school, I remember a boy who had flunked all of his classes except for science, who planned to leave school. I said, “Are you interested in science?” He said, “Yeah, but I’m through with school.” “Give me half an hour,” I said. “Walk with me to my home. I want to give you something.” There I pulled Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kruif, off the bookshelf and handed it to him. “Read this over the summer. You may change your mind,” I said. 

The following term, on the first day of school, I saw him. “You’re back,” I said. “That’s wonderful.” He said, “It was that book you gave me.” He said he never read it, but he returned to school because I had given him my own hardcover book. That did it, not words or lectures, but an act of caring. That’s a very important lesson. 

Not too long ago, I was speaking at a retirement luncheon at the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, and it was as if I was back in college, speaking to those seven-year-olds again. I told the teachers that while they may think they are retiring, they are not. I can tell you, you are always a teacher. “You remain alive in thousands of memories and thousands of minds of people you have taught,” I said. “It’s a kind of immortality.”

Last year I taught a course on Jewish humor at Hunter College, where I’m an adjunct professor (they initially wanted me to teach Russian conversation). There were only about eight in the class. I threw away my notes, and we sat in a circle and just talked. About the many American comedians and writers of humor who are Jewish, which has to do with immigrants and the Borscht Circle that was born in the Catskills and their spoken-on-the-street stories. About how humor was poking fun at the person telling the joke as a kind of defense mechanism. In other words, before you call me a hypochondriac, I’ll tell you a story about hypochondria. A Frenchman, a German, and a Jew walk into a bar. The Frenchman says “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have wine.” The German says “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have beer.” The Jews says, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have diabetes.” Here’s another one: A reported interviews Mrs. Adler, the mother of the famous Stella Adler. “You look so young. How old are you? “I am 48,” Mrs. Adler says. “But Mrs. Adler, your daughter Stella is 52. How can this be?” “Well,” says Mrs. Adler, “she leads her life. I lead mine.” 

My husband is my second husband and only a baby at 95. He lectures on China and Marxism, and runs the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation. Right now, I am not teaching; I am writing a book about my grandfather. It is based on a letter that he wrote me: “Dear Belochka, I’m writing you to ask you to hurry and grow up so that you can learn to write and you’ll be able to write me letters. In order to grow up, it is necessary to drink milk, eat soup and vegetables and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your papa, Sholom Aleichem.” I was four years old, and I never answered that letter. Now I am doing so with my book Dear Papa

I was in my 50’s when my first novel, Up the Down Staircase, was published and at once became a best-seller. The famous documentarian Albert Maysles has been filming my talks for a documentary, including one in which I discussed my book. The publishers held an obscenity conference. The word fuck on the blackboards of our school disturbed them. They asked me to change it to fuc. “No,” I said. “That’s one word they know how to spell.” It reminded me of the story about Norman Mailer, who in his first book used to spell it fug. When Tallulah Bankhead met Mailer, she said, “Oh, yes, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.” 

I’ve lived a long time, a very long time, 101 years, and I’m still here. I’m done with the doubts and struggles and insecurities of youth. I’m finished with loss and guilt and regret. I’m very old, and nothing is expected of me. Now, provided good health continues, I can do what I want. I can write my memoirs. I can edit my works for future eBooks. I can even do nothing- what a luxury that is! I have new priorities and a new appreciation of time. I enjoy my family more than ever, and also a sunny day and a comfortable bed. I keep up my interest in books and theater and people, and I’m tired, I rest. My former students write to me and visit me. I had many problems and disasters in my life; fortunately, at my age, I don’t remember what they were. I’m glad I am 101. — AS TOLD TO ROBERT SULLIVAN 


New York

There I was standing outside a cafe in New York on a rainy afternoon. It was pouring outside and I had just drank a cup of cafe au lait. I left Lulu’s apartment cursing the heavy air outside pondering about whether or not to take with me one of her umbrellas. Thankfully, I did. So I made my way to my first stop; the grocery store, and stocked up heavily on cornflakes and assorted milks. 

Sipping my coffee I thought oh well the umbrella was useless. But then I turned around to face the big windows and to my surprise it was pouring and people were running around in their short summer clothes soaking wet. Aha, the umbrella was a good idea afterall. I decided to wait a little while longer hoping the rain would simmer down to a breezy shower. But after half an hour, I gave up. 

At the cafe entrance I stood wondering what would be the most efficient way to make it to the flower shop and back to the apartment without getting too wet. Suddenly I heard a man exclaiming loudly “wow it’s pouring.” “You scared me!” I replied. The man came out of the cafe and stood there, like me, probably wondering about the same thing I was wondering about. 

I caught my train of thought as it took me to Farah, why don’t you offer the man to walk with you and share your umbrella? Then, wait if you offer the man half of your umbrella, would he think you are coming on to him? Never mind. Farah, did you forget to brush your teeth this morning? The train stopped at “Well, good luck!” and the man ran off into the rain. Darn, Farah. If you didn’t worry so much, the poor man would now have a umbrella to walk under, and you would have a helping hand with all your heavy groceries.

Alas, I made my way to the flower shop. As I picked the flowers, I looked at the spongy cereal boxes and wet milk bottles and reminded myself to stop worrying so much and let live. The moment had passed and I was left with myself again. 

Gabriel in Carson Beach, Massachusetts View high resolution

Gabriel in Carson Beach, Massachusetts

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