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  • Zainab Saleh

On Dismantling "Okayness"

My mother loves cup readings and constantly asks her friends to drink a shot of espresso in my name, to tell her what I’ll become. For the most part, it’s an enjoyable sight, the way my mother presses the speaker button on her phone and is delighted to hear that I’ll be something. It’s fairytale-esque, the way they describe a future of joy and happiness, of travel and wonder, of love and a life well lived. They’ll note the common bright future, but it’s the way their voices fall to a murmur that there are tears in my eyes, and I think too much, and they hesitate, “and her mind runs a mile a minute, and she doesn’t give herself a break, and I’ll pray for her, I will.”

I shrug it off, the way my mom eyes me when I get up and my hands are trembling, and the soft buzz in my ears returns. “They’re just coffee grounds in a cup” and she’ll seek that as an affirmation that I’m, again, quite alright. And maybe it’s the way that I’ve never admitted to myself that operating in two different spheres, the one where I’m not quite Iraqi enough and the one where I’m not nearly American enough, is taking a toll on me. It makes its way present when I find myself enunciating my words to seek respect, or battling the way on my drive home on how I didn’t respond to the racist comment someone threw my way because my body was too busy trembling, my breath nowhere to be found, and my eyes blinking repeatedly to remind me that I’m alive. It’s taken a toll that I’ve shrugged off for so long that in more ways than one, I am still undiscovered.

Still don’t know where the trembling starts and ends. Still don’t know who I am. Still don’t know who I’m supposed to be. But I tremble and jumble and attempt to discover and confront who I am.

I sit in Mosques and try to recite the same words of verses my mother has known by heart since she was a child and I shy away from prayer mats because I just don’t know. My breath catches in my throat when I stand and face Mecca and murmur words in the sea of people who pray for prosperity and peace and I have to blink to remember that my feet are on solid ground. They’ll pass around two dates and a yogurt drink, and they’ll ask how I am, “how’s school?” and I’ll nod and say “it’s quite alright.” There’s a break in trust between us when I can’t meet their eyes, and I want to tell them it’s just a thing about me, how it’s hard to look people in the eye without jumbling words in two different tongues. I want to swear to them, in this holy site, that I’ve never been one good at speaking. But they’ve taken what they’ve needed out of the conversation, I think they might think I’m shying away from my Arabness or simply rejecting it, and my mother dismantles this idea and tells them I’m the shy one of the family, so I smile and eat the date and stay silent. It’s what I know.

Maybe I’m failing in their minds, or maybe they’ll be on the same page with me, that I’m genuinely physically present but evidently mentally lost. I still can’t meet their eyes, and it’s the way it shows when I’m always quiet in these group settings. “Smile more,” and “speak more,” but speak in a way that shouts black tea with two teaspoons of sugar and the Basrah pride of my mother, and the disregard of an absent father and the laughs of "homewreckers and the havoc they cause." I realize there’s no reference guide here, on lessening the burdens of oneself when the burden is disguised in tea cups with biscuits, the swirl of okayness in sugar and black tea leaves. It is as if it is a settled promise between the bittersweet taste on the tongue of this I’m okay drink and the roaring stomach waiting to envelop its I’m okay journey, that what is not spoken has been gulped down and kept away from the people we break bread with.

It’s when I start college that it begins to make an everlasting presence, the way my breath catches in my throat and the more I open my mouth to speak, the more my tongue betrays me in debating whether I speak or stay silent. I’m in a short story class and we’re discussing why the main character’s parents are referred to “the mother of the oldest child’s name.” I know the answer, the story takes place in the Middle East, my mother goes by Om Zain (meaning the mother of Zain, my brother’s name, the oldest child) but my heart is racing and the soft buzz makes its way to the tip of my tongue. You’ll stay silent today, it threatens, and as always, I listen.

And for the most part, I’ve grown accustomed to the soft buzz and the way my heartbeat knows no bounds when I’m sitting in class and I can swear I have a compelling thought but it won’t come out. And I know that in more ways than one, I need to talk about it, and I appreciate the thoughts and prayers for my busy head to calm down, and that another cup reading is on the horizon, but I just need to talk to someone about it. But when there’s an unspoken okayness in struggle, when you’re pushed to seek help in one sphere and pushed to let it simmer down in the other, the betweenness betrays you more than you think.

It’s most definitely not that there’s a general consensus that seeking help for my mental health is bad, I mean, for the most part, I’ve barely admitted it to anyone that I’ve been struggling for years, silently but through physical signs of distress that are interpreted as chills and lack of sleep. But there’s a stigma that has held me back from even distinguishing that my suffering is more than bad days and bad weeks. It has held me back from confronting that duality has taken a toll on me and that even admitting it to myself is a sign of weakness, or a sign of bad faith. It makes me think about many of us in the Muslim community who are struggling, especially when operating in multiple spheres of identity, and how confronting this struggle in itself has implications that we do not want to exhaust ourselves over justifying or explaining, even when we do not need to do so. Even when we know we do not owe an explanation for seeking help.

It was just a few days ago when I admitted to a very close friend and my mother that I was really struggling, that I had felt worse than I ever have. And, thankfully, I’ve only been met with kindness and advocation for my well-being, but the fact that it has taken over fifteen years for me to dismantle the “okayness” of existing in a place where I often disembody is unsettling. I don’t know where I go from here, but as I finish up my last semester of my Master’s degree, I realize that playing into "okayness" for the sake of being seen as strong has made me feel weak. Playing a role where I am not myself and shrugging off instances that keep me up at night, where I consider and reconsider my responses, that keep me “mentally running,” is not alright.

I may never be one good at speaking, but I am one good at learning to speak up, not just for others but myself. I want “okayness” to no longer be the loose tea leaves at the bottom of a tea cup--I want it to touch the tip of the tongue, to serve as a reminder that the taste is strong, yes, but worthwhile to recognize before it gets washed out.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or has concerns about their well-being, here is a resource that has a list of hotlines and resources to seek help.

Works Cited

Sheikh, Fyeqa. "Muslim Mental Health: Fighting the Stigma through Awareness." The Islamic Monthly, 24 May 2019,

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