As the sun rose, the sound of the Azan rings out, cutting through the stillness of the morning. Upon hearing it, I wake up and run to the window to take a peek out. On a clear day, I could see the pyramids in the distance. Then I would scurry back to bed and slip into a doze.
It was hard for my parents to wake me up on Sunday through Thursday, as they were school days. School was a source of anxiety for me. I can see that it had a great effect on my mental health. Looking back, I really wish I had the tools to cope with the anxiety that I felt daily. Therapy and psychology did not exist in the Arab/African culture. However, in other ways it made me very strong and ignited my love of storytelling and filmmaking.
Every morning at school, there was a Taboor, a gathering where all students would line up in the courtyard and sing the national anthem. I wanted to be part of it, but often missed it. On the few occasions that I was present for it, I was scared. There was a huge number of students, and I was constantly being pushed and shoved in the crowd. I waded my way through the sea of students onto the green metal stairs clenching my sister's hand. Finally, I would arrive in my classroom triumphant and relieved.
I relished the moments before class started. I pulled out my color coded covered notebooks and placed them on the left side of my desk. Then, I started reading my book of fairytales. My first class was Arabic Language. The teacher was a mustached, severe looking man. Every time he walked into the room, you could practically feel the students holding their breath, myself included. He enjoyed intimidating us and making us feel small. My first day in his class, I remember being so intimidated that I forgot all of my spelling words and received a zero on my quiz. In addition to throwing notebooks at those of us who misspelled words on our spelling test, he also took advantage of the school’s corporal punishment policy. If anyone talked in class or got an answer wrong, they were punished with a ruler to their hands. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how stressful the constant need these days were for me.
The recess bell was a savior. Sometimes, I stared at the clock waiting for it to ring. I didn’t like to leave the classroom, because I was too afraid to fall. When I left the classroom, I needed to hold on to the wall for support while walking. People with disabilities were not recognized, so I did not walk with any assistive device. Cerebral Palsy causes muscle tightness, an erratic gait, and balance issues. These symptoms make walking difficult for me. This added to my stress. During recess, I chose to stay in the empty classroom and read my stories. My imagination was my refuge. I immersed myself in my stories. Alice in Wonderland was my favorite. I would pretend I was Alice falling into the rabbit hole, discovering a new place with strange characters. When reading my stories, I was able to forget about what was going on in school and enter a world where there were no limitations. Friday was my favorite day of the week because my dad took me and my sister to Cinema Metro. The theatre had an animated feature for children every Friday. I saw films like The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Toy Story. I loved the beautiful imagery and the elements of adventure in these films, but I also found myself wondering how they were made - that’s when my love of filmmaking began.
My sister and I would often play pretend at home. We would pretend that we were grownups with children and go around doing daily tasks. While many kids do this, I really think living in my imagination daily, and performing these pretend tasks gave me a sense of calm. The weekend was my reprieve from the world.
In 1999, when I was 10 years old, we traveled to the U.S. My dad took me to a psychologist. I talked to him about my experiences in Cairo. However, we never discussed how to cope with extreme anxiety.
I believe that the anxiety I experienced in elementary school plays a huge role in the anxiety I have now. I never learned how to deflect, process, or deal with my feelings. I was so accustomed to constant stress that small issues would often make me very tense. I made a “dome out of a seed”, as the Sudanese saying goes. Instead of letting go of problems, even ones that were not my own, I held on to them and unintentionally made them bigger. I am still learning how to deal with my anxiety. I think pursuing therapy is a good idea. Seeking professional guidance, curating a self-care routine, doing things that make me feel empowered, and pursuing my passion for screenwriting are all things that have truly helped me.
The cultural stigma surrounding mental health and disabilities was crippling to me as a child, so I have worked to also surround myself with supportive and loving people. All of these decisions have allowed me to carve out a path of learning and growth for myself. The path to change is not an easy one, but with support, it can be traversed.