“Be Yourself Be Independent”.
Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog
I saw Maryam Aljooan in Kuwait Science Club, holding a presentation for an enthusiastic group of young Kuwaitis, for the first time back in 2008. The club was located out in the desert, far away from residency areas and shopping malls. A bleak building from the outside, colorful posters describing the earth and models of the planetary system decorated the inside. Small, claustrophobic stairs led to the roof where a telescope offered opportunities to watch the stars at night. The place was a refuge for young, smart people who wanted to do something else but shopping or eating. In weekends the members went on star watching trips to the desert and gathered to watch space related movies.
Maryam was the supervisor. Her main interests were space, earth and environment; she had studied engineering in US, one year in Russia at St Petersburg Polytechnical University; and was dedicated to share her knowledge.
“In Kuwait I met many young people that say ‘it’s not possible here’ about anything. There’s a lack of believe in themselves” she says.
Kuwait is a wealthy country where oil, expats and American-style malls have put the country on the map for many. But Maryam’s own childhood was characterized by the Gulf War, when the quiet little country suddenly was invaded and subject to horrible abuse by Iraqi troops. She retells how the society changed afterwards into a hopeless place. Many had lost family members; with the Iraqi army targeting the young boys, almost every family lost at least one of their sons.
“Before the invasion we had a little farm in our school, we did music and learned about arts. After the war everything was put aside.”
According to Maryam, materialism replaced curiosity and involvement in the community. The influence of American culture brought fast food chains and malls popped up with food courts and imported designer clothes, adding to the growing consumer culture. In a few years obesity had become a general health problem (today Kuwait ranks number 1 in obesity internationally). Many young people had lost hope and saw no importance in accomplishing. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to finish school and getting married. In her own family, there was no history of education: own father had only finished high school and her mother had dropped out when she was 12.
“My grandmother didn’t really care about my mom’s education; she wanted my mom to help out with her younger sisters and brothers at home.”
Her grandmother had herself no schooling at all and had been married off in her early teens.
It might not have been likely that Maryam would continue at university; she also went to a public school, not one of the high-ranking American or British private schools. She retells how her family, although being kind and even accepting her marrying a European man, never encouraged her, and she didn’t tell them her dreams about being an astronaut – she nurtured the dream since receiving a small telescope and books about space when being a small girl. In school she was shy and didn’t know how to do things on her own, and until the last year of high school she didn’t know that there was something called university or scholarships to apply for. When her class went on a tour to the university she was surprised: “Oh, there’s something more”, she remembers thinking to herself.
Now she started to wonder if it possible for her to pursue her studies in the space field. A scholarship made it possible for her to move to US to study her bachelors degree, and a NASA conference in 2003 made her decide what she wanted to work with.
“Space, earth and environment are all connected,” she explains to me with enthusiasm on Skype from Belgium, where she lives with her husband Alex, whom she met on a space conference in Japan. “I want to contribute to science and do something for climate change.”
For long she wanted to be the first female Arab astronaut in space and kept an acclaimed blog about it. But her involvement in the Kuwaiti community took a lot of time; she became the supervisor of the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Kuwait Science Club and dedicated her free time to help the young members, at the same time she was travelling a lot and starting up her own NGO Lazurd (Arabic word for Azure, a hue of blue representing earth). She also put her efforts in to being the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica, and succeeded. Photos of Maryam with penguins; Maryam triumphantly holding up the Kuwaiti flag on an ice berg; Maryam in a small boat on her way over the chilling sea, fills up her Facebook page “The Antartic Expedition of Maryam Aljoaan”.
I ask her why she is so dedicated to the young people in Kuwait now that she has a career of her own and is living outside of the country.
“I was in this situation myself that I see many of the young people in today. If I wouldn’t do anything for the young people in Kuwait I would feel like I would disappear. I know I can set my own example for the kids.”
If she would be able to help another woman to be the first Arab woman in space, she would now appreciate this as much as being the first one herself. I ask her what her parents think about her, the shy girl from a public school who became a celebrity in Kuwait; the supervisor of Kuwait Science Club; and the first Kuwaiti woman on Antarctica.
“My mom is proud” she says. “And as for my dad, well he don’t talk much, but when I was in Russia he made a point out of calling me when he was in the Diwaniya” (gathering at someone’s house). “‘I’m speaking to my daughter, she’s in Russia! She’s studying space engineering!’ he would tell his friends. That’s how I know he’s proud of me too.”
Photo credit: Maryam Aljooan
When Riham started the Kuwait Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign in 2012, it was the first of its kind.
“The general idea about eating disorders here is that it’s about girls wanting to be thin”, she says. “But it’s more than weight, it’s an addiction. A Kuwaiti girl saying she’s struggling with an eating disorder is hard.”
It was when Riham was 12 and watched an American movie where a young girl has an eating disorder, when the idea struck her: “I think that’s what I have”. It was in the early 90s and she was in the US where her father was a diplomat. Although Riham seemed to have a word for the rules she put up for herself around eating – she was only allowed to eat a certain number of foods, the food couldn’t touch either on the plate – she kept it to herself.
The family moved back to Kuwait and things got worse. Riham started overeating and quickly gained a lot of weight. She didn’t speak Arabic very well and her self-esteem dropped with her new extra kilos and the struggle with the new surroundings. Eating disorder was recognized internationally but in Kuwait the issue was not recognized, just like other mental health problems was often a taboo, even though many of the country’s inhabitants were suffering from psychological problems after the Gulf War. Still, Riham’s father paid attention to her problems: “On the contrary to what people think about fathers in the Middle East, my father saw exactly what was going on.”
Riham’s father made her see a psychiatrist when she was 21, but the doctor didn’t understand that her binging and vomiting was nothing that she could just stop doing, and although remaining in therapy her eating disorder remained unchanged for several years. To her great sorrow she lost her father at the age of 25, before she had been able to progress: “He never saw me getting better.”
A few years later she found information about Timberline Knolls Treatment Center in US online, and gave the support line a call just to see what they would say. The person on the other side of the line made Riham open up, and she felt trust. She decided that she wanted to have the treatment at the treatment residential center, to finally try and come to terms with her disorder. Riham’s family agreed on paying for the quite expensive treatment in Illinois. Two weeks later she was on a flight to the US.
In the center she lived with 35 other women that suffered from the same problems as she did. In short time she learned to overcome and master her disease that she had been battling since the age of 10. Her family took part in the regular therapy sessions by phone, even if that meant them having to get up in the middle of the night to participate. Riham improved quickly: “It was residential treatment that I needed. It completely changed my life.”
Three months later she signed out from the center and returned home, where she was to take another important step in her new life.
Not only were there no groups or therapies for people suffering from eating disorders in Kuwait before Riham’s campaign started – in all of the Middle East there is no residential treatment center for eating disorders, why many young girls and boys are left on their own. It was in such an environment Riham came of age, and this was what she wanted to change.
Upon her return from Illinois she started a training to be an eating disorder specialist. She describes herself as healthy and in recovery, with a lot of support from her “conservative, typical Kuwaiti family” – a family that is very happy to see a grown-up Riham helping other young women overcome what haunted her for years.
“My ultimate goal is to open a residential center in Kuwait or the Middle East. When you talk about it you kill the secrecy around the eating disorder.”
Her first step, the campaign, received a lot of attention when launched. Riham became a member of Middle East Eating Disorder Association, was soon in the board of directors, and chosen to be the Kuwaiti representative. She started a support group that now hold meetings every Sunday and have a number of young women attending. As her new mission started to take up most of her time, Riham quit her previous job to work full time towards changing the society by raising the awareness, not only regarding eating disorders, and maybe not only in her own country, but in all of the Middle East:
“There is a stigma around mental health issues here that I want to change. A person with these problems is not the crazy person walking around in the street; it’s someone like you and me.”
Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog
I like to kill myths and here’s one for you: there is no such thing as dry countries in the Middle East. Upon my arrival to Kuwait a few years back, I had no idea where I was going, and I googled the name and found information on how breaking the ban on alcohol led to harsh punishments such as the death penalty. Other expats that I met during the first days of my stay confirmed this picture: the place was a boring, dull place to be, with no places to meet people, only a variety of international restaurants and the desert.
Was it my luck that I made friends with connections, or that I made several Kuwaiti friends? Maybe it mattered that I was blonde since I was welcomed into a circle that many expats never got to know of? Well whatever the reason was, I can tell you that the rumours aren’t true.
“Hey, what you doing tonight?” a friend of a friend asked me that first Thursday evening I went to a party in Kuwait, it was a hot and gloomy afternoon a few weeks after I had arrived. “You wanna go clubbing?”
I assumed “clubbing” in Kuwait ment a few friends hanging out over homemade date rum, a booze I hope you’ll never have to try. But as I met him outside one of the sand colored buildings, he made a phone call then led me through a door in the basement that led to another door, etc, and inside of it all throned a night club, complete with DJ booth, bar counter and maroon sofas. As an extra addition to the luxury the wash basin in the bathroom was transparent glass and a brand perfume was left on the zink for anyone who wanted to refresh.
This was an all Kuwaiti setting, no expats were to be seen, something strange in a country where around 70% of the inhabitants are expats. Some young men managed the party surrounded by dolled-up women in designer shoes, mini skirts and highlighted, teased hair (I came to discover that no matter how much time I put on my looks before these parties, I could never compare myself with these gorgeous Barbie dolls. I simply didn’t have the money). The men opened bottle after bottle of whiskey, gin and vodka and nonchalantly threw the empty boxes over the shoulder: “Fancy another drink, sweetheart?” Everything was for free, everything was ok; in the sofas, couples made out, in a corner someone smoked weed.
“Wanna dance? I will lead you, don’t worry!” my cavalier asked me and brought me with him to the dance floor. Even though the place was modern, the partygoers hadn’t lost touch with their roots – the music was Kuwaiti and Arabic all night. I remember us dancing and making the DJ play our favourite Nancy Ajram songs, and the club owner was friendly and a concerned host, treating everyone to delivery food in the early morning, giving me and my friend a ride home at the end of the party so that we wouldn’t be caught in one of the nightly check points, where Kuwaiti authorities stopped cars and searched for alcohol and drugs.
After this first evening I quickly made my way into the party scene in Kuwait, and I had some of my craziest nights that year in the Gulf, in these getaway places where young men and women met and lived as if they were somewhere outside. Not all Kuwaitis goes to the clubs, I met Kuwaitis in other settings that hadn’t been to these places at all. There are also many that would disagree on alcohol existing in their country, who wouldn’t hesitate on calling the police on their neighbours if they knew what was going on next to their house. Because of this I have very few photos from the parties I went to (and since I’m not putting anyone at risk I’m not adding any of the photos I do have on the blog). But the scene exists, and from what I heard, the clubs in Saudi Arabia are even crazier.