Zenatalla Ibrahim – Lost and Found

Bread & Butter is a monthly dinner and storytelling event designed to make you think deeply about social issues. A new storyteller every month shares a personal story with 40 guests in the dining room at the Centre for Stories.

Zenatalla Ibrahim is near completion of her dental degree at the University of Western Australia. When she isn’t studying or fixing teeth, she’s creating – an avid visual artist and poet drawing strength from raw vulnerability and connection. On 29 August 2019, Zena shared her story Lost and Found at the Centre’s monthly dinner and storytelling evening, Bread & Butter.

You can listen to Zena’s story by clicking the play button, or read a transcript below.

My story starts at the end of 2017 on a bit of a sad note. I was standing in the kitchen, leaning against the kitchen bench, across from the man that I loved more than anything in the world. I mean, I adored this man. He could have asked for anything and I would have jumped and done it for him. He just had this incredible power over me. I truly believe if he asked me to move across countries, or the world, I would have done it. And I was sitting across from him, and I was having a panic attack because he literally just looked me in the eye one day and said, “I don’t love you anymore. You’re not the person I fell in love with.” And I mean at that point–you should be sad, right? I was just angry. So, I’m Egyptian and I have two emotions–anger and happiness. I was just viscerally angry. Because I had changed everything about my life for this man. I had left my faith, I had left my family, I had left my friends. I lived a completely different lifestyle for him. It’s not that he was a terrible person, it’s that I met him at a time when I didn’t know who I was. So, I was looking for anyone to attach myself to.

I grew up in a very white suburb. I was the only kid who looked like me. I was the only Muslim kid in my class who didn’t celebrate Christmas. I would fast and kids would ask me why I wasn’t eating. Just all that small stuff when you’re a kid that makes you feel like you’re an alien. I grew up my whole life feeling like I was outside the world and looking in. And for once, just for once I wanted to be ‘that girl’. That girl who you saw had all the friends, and the partner and the degree and the job. And so, I think for a very long time I was a chameleon. I got so good at it. I got so good at blending in with whoever I was with. If my best friend liked cars, I loved cars; if my partner at the time loved punk rock music, I liked punk rock music. I had just become this marble mosaic of other people. I went through my life not knowing who I was. This is like, at the age of twenty-three and you’re just standing in this room across from someone you love more than the world and they tell you you’re not who you used to be. And you’re like, I don’t even know who that is. Because everything that I am, I’ve tried to be because I want you to love me. I want you to tell me that I’m worthy. I want to receive your acceptance. And that’s what I was striving for. I was in this position of pleasing everyone in my life except for myself. And living for everybody except myself. So, I was kind of living multiple lives by that point. I mean, I was someone different at home: I was this good Muslim girl without ever having true connection or true faith. We call it Emaan–it’s like a true belief in your heart–I was always Muslim by name, because that’s what was expected of me, but I never felt it. And there’s a certain thing about belief that if you don’t feel it, then there’s no point.

So, I was a different person with my friends, and with my partner. And obviously, living like that you’re going to come into some troubles. At that point, I looked at him and I was like: “Well, I want to work through it, I want to be with you. What do I need to do? Just tell me how to fix it.” We spent three weeks kind of going back and forth. At that point, we had been together for two years, we had a house together, we were engaged. I hadn’t spoken to my parents in ten months. I left on the 23rd of December 2016. I quite literally walked out of my parents’ house with the shirt on my back. I didn’t even say goodbye to my younger brother and sister. Because he didn’t like them. And they didn’t like him. And they had good reason not to. He wasn’t the greatest person for me, we had quite a toxic relationship on both ends.

I quite literally had no family, no friends. All my friends were his friends. Everyone I knew in my life was connected to him. So, I was just so, overwhelmingly alone. I remember he said, “You know, you can stay here and then after you finish your exams, you can move out.” And I was like “Cool, great, sweet.” And then, as things go when a long-term relationship ends, it exploded. I was in the middle of ten final dentistry exams–not great timing–I have impeccable timing. And I actually found myself homeless. I was homeless for a couple of days. It was just through sheer dumb luck that I went to my Guild at UWA and I was like, “This is what happened, I have no money because we’re technically de facto so his income was too much for me to be making any money. And CentreLink, they have a waiting period to make sure that you’re actually separated–because clearly living on the street isn’t evidence enough!” I was a mess in her office. And she goes, “You know what, someone’s actually paid in advance two weeks and then left.” I mean, I don’t know a uni student who pays their rent two weeks in advance–I pay everything late like all my bills are overdue (sorry Vodaphone!) And so, I was like, “Are you serious?” And she was like “Yeah look it’s a really small dorm. But whatever you need, we’ll get for you.” Ironically, earlier that year I was working with the Guild and we started this project called The Food Pantry. Where people who are well off will donate non-perishable items so that students who are living below the poverty line can walk in, give you their student number just for tally purposes, and then take a packet of Mee Goreng, deodorant, pads, shavers–whatever you need to get you through the week to the next paycheck. And then I found myself using that, in December that same year. It’s funny how life comes full circle. I had this perception of myself that I would never be that type of person to end up homeless or end up couch-surfing. And it’s a really humbling moment. At that time, it was probably the worst time of my life but looking back on it, it just taught me so much about what I’m made out of.

Anyway, I moved all my stuff into this tiny, little apartment. It was like the size of a hallway–my stuff was overflowing. And I was sitting on my bed and I just remember being so over-washed with emotion. I was sitting there feeling like I have nothing. I was like floating. There was nothing to anchor me. No friends, no family, no one that I was speaking to. All of my friends were his friends, so they were kind of avoiding the drama. And I just realised how small and insignificant you are in the world if you don’t know who you are. At the end of the day when you go home and you put your head on your pillow, all you have is yourself. All you have are your principles and your ideals and if you’re constantly shaping that after someone else, then who are you really? And so, that night, I picked up the phone and I called my mum. And I had not spoken to mum in ten months. I meant to call her on a private number because I didn’t want her knowing my new number. I called her and I was like, “We broke up, he doesn’t love me anymore, I’m a mess. I’m in a little, shitty dorm at uni. My life’s a mess. I feel really alone.” And at that point I had green hair and my head was three quarters shaved. And I mean my mum and my dad are traditional Egyptian Muslims–they’re great, they’ve assimilated, it’s fine, they’re modern Muslims! But green hair pushes it for anyone. And I had one of those, what my mum likes to call ‘cow nose rings’. And then I just realised how I looked and that I was going to be seeing my mum for the first time in ten months. So, I was like: “No, no, no, you know what don’t come. It’s fine, I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.” And I hung up on her, thinking that my phone was on no caller ID. And then she calls me back and I was like oh, ok great. And I picked up the phone and I was like, “Hi, yeah I actually thought that my phone was on no caller ID,” and she was like, “Oh,” and my mum did not skip a beat. She goes, “Have you eaten?” that was literally the first thing she asked me after ten months of no speaking. And I was the most horrible daughter. She just goes, “Have you eaten? Let’s go get food,” and I was like, “Are you sure? Like, I look terrible,” and she was like: “I won’t ask you any questions, just come downstairs in ten minutes, I’ll be there.” She literally dropped everything she was doing to come, drive to me and pick me up. And if that is not the epitome of what an Egyptian mother is, I mean…

She opened the door and got into the car; she didn’t say a thing. My hair was bright teal, people! She didn’t say a thing. She just looked at me and she goes: “Ok we’ve got pizza, we’ve got Nando’s,” and I was like, “Ok pizza.” And so we drove to the pizza store and I was like, “Actually, I’ll get duck,” and usually mum always harps on me for ordering the duck–she doesn’t thing it’s like a real meal, she’s always like, “Order lamb, or beef, not the duck, it’s in-between.” And she let me order the duck! She let me order garlic bread and sweet potato chips, she really went all out. She didn’t ask me any questions. She didn’t make me feel bad. She didn’t expect me to be anything. And I have never felt more unconditionally loved than in that moment, than just right there sitting in that restaurant looking like a mess.

From that point, three weeks later my mum took days of work driving me around to CentreLink to get me back on CentreLink. She took me to K-Mart. Now, in the later part of my story I’ll talk to you a bit about my trip back to Egypt. But K-Mart is a second close home. K-Mart is amazing. I had nothing. All of my stuff was obviously with my ex-fiancée. So, she just went through K-Mart and she was just putting it all in and I was like, “Mum, I have no money to get this.” She just dropped four hundred dollars for me on the K-Mart tab. Just primo parenting. And she came to my apartment, she put everything up. My parents, I know that their first gut instinct, seeing how unwell I was and seeing how broken I was, would be to just take me home and have me move back in with them. But my mum looked at me and she was just like, “No, you need to do this. You need to know that you can make it by yourself. I’m here to help you but moving back home is not going to solve anything.” She just propped me up. And so, I got through the exams and I got to the end of the semester. It was finished and I’d only deferred one exam.

I remember sitting in my apartment with my mum and she just looked at me and she was like, “I think you need to get out of Perth”. Because I was talking to her about how hard it was having literally no friends. That all our friends were caught up in the ‘he-said-she-said’, in the kind of divide that had occurred in our very messy break-up. And I was like, “I feel so alone, I feel embarrassed, I feel humiliated. This is a guy I was engaged to less than a year ago and now I’m on the street. And he just turned away from me without the bat of an eyelid.” So, I was feeling really broken. She was like, “Just get out of Perth, go home.” And I was like, “You mean like five Ks down the road? Nedlands home? What are you talking about?” And she was like, “No, home, home–go to Egypt.” I had not been to Egypt in…eleven years or so. And I was like, “Oh, ok, I don’t know how that’s going to work.” In the back of my head I was like oh, mum’s trying to convert me again. And then I looked at her and I was like, “Mum, you know there’s a really good chance that I’ll never be Muslim again,” and my mum just kind of looked at me and she was like, “Ok. I’m Muslim, it’s important to me. As long as you respect who I am, I just want you to be happy. I just don’t want you to be broken anymore.” And I think she empowered me to love myself how I was. I feel like as people we feel like we have to have it figured out all the time, we have to know exactly who we are. And my mum loved me in my state of flux. In my dynamic self. In the parts when I had no idea who I was and what I was going through. She just kind of kept pushing me on.

And so, I got on the plane to Egypt and I was writing in my journal: I’m never going to be Muslim, I’m never going to be Muslim, I’m never going to be Muslim. It was like a little chant in my head I was like it’s the last thing I’m ever going to do! And then I got off the plane. And I saw my grandma for the first time in eleven years. She used to be this really big power-woman-figure in my head because she used to be a dermatologist up until the age of 60. She was a doctor in Egypt in a time when women weren’t doctors. So, she’s pretty badass. And she’s just this lovely, cuddly old woman. And so, I got off the plane and I just gave her the biggest hug and there were lots of tears, obviously. She also fed me within like five minutes of seeing her. And then, over the next couple of weeks we just went everywhere. I was walking the streets of downtown Cairo, Talaat Harb where you can see the French architecture mingling with the grassroots, common, downtown Egyptian people. Grilled corn on the street, corn on the cob–you can smell the corn, like kind of a popcorn smell from the apartment windows–really old coffee shops, like two hundred and fifty year old coffee shops and marketplaces older than your great-great-grandma. I just loved every single second of it, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at home. I was literally walking, and my skin was tingling, and I was like this is my country, this is my people, this is where I come from. It was that feeling of knowing my roots. It was like finally finding the richness in your lineage. That richness in your family. I felt for the very first time that I was exactly where I needed to be. And I had never felt that feeling before. It was really funny because at that point I was still not Muslim, like still a little bit of a shaved head – I had dyed it back to brown so that my grandma wouldn’t have an aneurysm. But I was still very much lost, spiritually.

And then I was sitting in my grandma’s bed–I know at that point I was twenty-three–but ever since I was fifteen, me and my grandma we’d cuddle in the same bed when she’d come over and visit in Australia. And I was like, I’m not going to go sleep in the bedroom you’ve made for me, I’m just going to cuddle in the same bed as you. And one night, me and my grandma were cuddling, and I got a little email notification at like 2 a.m. from the University of Western Australia. It was my grades. I was like, oh I’ve definitely failed a bunch of exams. Because I was literally doing my exams in the middle of unpacking my stuff. And I opened it, and I’d managed to pull off really good marks in all of my subjects. At that moment, reflexively and instinctively, I looked up and I started sobbing and I started thanking God. It wasn’t something vocal that I was doing, I was just like heaving chest, sobbing. I don’t know how to describe it. For the very first time in my life I felt this huge connection. And in that moment, my grandma must have been like, woah what’s going on. Because I just got up, I made wudu for the first time in years and I prayed. And it was like it had never left me. The words just rolled off my tongue, everything came instinctively, and I just laid all my burdens bare. You can feel sandbags come off your shoulders. And I breathed properly for the first time in ages.

The next day we went to the Islamic Art Museum and that was the first day I ever wore the headscarf. I got this shitty, two-dollar infinity scarf from Cotton On. And I was like, “I don’t know how to do this, I watched some YouTube tutorials yesterday–I’m just going to wrap it around!” I still can’t get back to how good it looked back then with such little planning! And then we went to the Islamic Art Museum and I remember going through the history of how all the old mosques were designed architecturally. The influences of the Ottoman Empire and the Romans, the influence of marble, the different symbols on the tops of different mosques, what they signified, the different dynasties. And it just clicked, how much richness of history was in my hometown.

And basically, I went all over Egypt after that. I went to my actual hometown, where I was born, Alexandria. It’s a little seaside town, kind of like Busselton. They rebuilt the library of Alexandria, it’s not so great, but it’s still really beautiful. They’ve got a gorgeous ancient artefact collection in the basement–I don’t know why it’s in the basement. I just soaked up every little bit that I could of Egyptian culture. I went to all the mosques. There’s this part of Egypt called Masr Al-Qadima, so Old Cairo or Old Egypt and there’s this one hallway where you can stand with one hand on a church and one hand on a mosque and you can hear the priest reciting and you can hear the call to prayer and then the Rabbi is over there in the synagogue. All of these people, in the place that you think is so politically unstable, literally thousands of people come together every single day to pray, in the same square metreage. And I just remember feeling so connected to the people around me and so connected to life and so connected to the present moment.

I came back. It was only a six-week trip–this is a lot to happen in six weeks, right? And I came back and people were like, “Woah, what happened?” I lost a lot of friends, obviously after that. Because you go from a hard-core party girl in Perth to a headscarf-wearing Muslim and people aren’t so much of a fan of you. I think a lot of them thought that I had changed completely different person because I put a piece of cloth on my head and I re-found connection to God. I’m exactly the same person, maybe just a little bit more cynical. But I’m definitely a lot more ‘me’ than I used to be. So, it’s really funny that these people are like, “You’re not you anymore,” and I was like, “Well, I actually wasn’t me, I was just a version of me that I thought you’d like most”. So, whoops! But I guess what I kind of wanted to leave you with, from all of this, is that I spent my entire life trying to figure out who ‘being you’ was. And I don’t think it’s good advice to say ‘be yourself’. I think that’s really limiting, because I don’t think you know everything you are yet. I don’t think you know the most beautiful parts of yourself yet. I think it’s really limiting to limit yourself to this version of yourself that you think you are. Like: ‘I am a non-Muslim Perth party girl/I am a Muslim Hijabi’. Why are you putting yourself in that box? Just exist authentically, live in the moment and be completely unapologetic for you who are. If I were to get up tomorrow and take off my scarf, I would be ok with that. And I would expect everyone in my life to be ok with that because I am living my truth every single day. You know that who I am with you is who I am with every single other person. And if you are living anything less than that, you are not yourself. And if you are not yourself then what are you doing it for? Who are you living for? There’s going to be a time when you are by yourself, in the middle of the night, sitting in your bed. Do you know that you’ve brought 100% you to every interaction that day? People can tell. People can tell when you’re being authentic, people can tell when you’re being fake, people can tell when you’re holding something back. I found that as soon as I started just being really unapologetic. And yes, I have some people who really don’t like me. That’s really ok! I’m really supportive of them in their dislike for me actually, because I know that in me being my most authentic self, that there are going to be people who don’t like me. And that’s ok. And it’s that courage to be disliked, it’s that courage to be entirely who you are with no apologies. You don’t owe anyone any explanation for your journey. You don’t owe anyone any explanation for your beliefs, your spirituality, your sexual orientation, your gender, why you are the way you are. You get to just exist in the world. Justifications aren’t the rent that you pay to exist. So, I guess my top tip is to just continue to be vulnerable. I think that wearing my heart on my sleeve and being the first person to cry in any room or at any dinner has meant that I have actually made so many more precious connections. Everyone that I have in my life right now knows who I am, and it is a crying, emotional train-wreck, but it’s also 100% me. And so, I think that pretty much sums me up. And that’s my story–it’s basically one of rebirth and reclaiming what was always yours. And knowing your roots is the best way to knowing where you’re going to go.

Copyright © 2019 Zenatalla Ibrahim

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

, , , , ,
© 2022 Centre for Stories / Site by Super Minimal