Sannah Salameh (english)
The small child on the platform looks up at me, her big dark brown eyes are wide open. Her curly dark hair stands straight out on all sides. She takes a deep breath and then says to me:
“My daddy thinks you are really ugly!”
Total silence for a few seconds. She looks questioningly up at me, looking for confirmation that it was the right thing to say. I can not meet her gaze. ”That wasn’t very nice to hear”, I say, and turn my head towards her mother a few metres behind her. She is smiling, embarassed, with the girl’s younger brother, a stroller and grocery bags. Her mother does not meet my gaze as the young girl looks back and forth, from me to her mom.
I’m trying to think of something to say. In some way, I would like to communicate to this young girl that she shouldn’t listen to her dad, she shouldn’t care what anyone thinks about my appearance, or hers or anyone else’s.
Then the train arrives and the moment is over. The family and I get into separate carriages.
My journey home is fuelled with thoughts about that little girl and her comment. I am really angry. Angry at a father who teaches his daughter that a woman’s value is defined by her appearance – that it doesn’t matter how interesting, experienced, smart or competent a woman is, because if she is not attractive, she isn’t worth anything.
It’s like the father is saying that regardless of whther or not I am a good or bad TV-host, if I look different fom everybody else, then I should not be visible or counted!
I’m angry. But I am not surprised, as it’s not the first time my appearance has been used against me. All my life I have heard that I’m fat, ugly, that I have a weird flat nose, my lips are too big, that my face looks misshapen, plus a thousand variations on the same theme.
But below the surface of my political anger, my analysis, my intellect, there is a little voice wondering if all this may, in fact, be true? Can all those voices really be wrong? All of them?
My mother is English, my father is from Syria. I have a congenital syndrome. All of this can be seen. It is written all over my skin, engraved in my DNA. I was born and raised in Sweden. When I’m talking, reasoning and writing I sound “Swedish”. But my physical body always betrays me. I’m stuck with it.
Stuck with being a woman who is repeatedly reduced to a sexual object, reviewed and assessed on the basis of unattainable ideals. Stuck with being “brown”, always being the “other”, someone who doesn’t really fit in.
Once when some friends and I were in Berlin, we walked past a group of neo-Nazis who were standing on a street corner, shouting. They were extremely aggressive and obnoxious and the atmosphere was tense. My friends thought the whole scene was very provocative and one of them thought that we should go back and ask them to stop screaming!
I remember that I was so scared that I got a stomach ache. Because if they saw us, if they paid any attention to us whatsoever, I was the only one who wasn’t blond and blue-eyed. I would be the one singled out. One of my friends tried to reassure me, saying that if the Nazis were to react, we would all be targets, as all were artists and anti-racists.
But my friend didn’t understand. For me there was no way out. No free passage. The Nazis on the corner would never, whether I liked it or not, look past my skin, my hair, my eyes. To be reduced to one’s skin is an excruciating sensation. Vulnerable, humiliating. It’s impossible to reason with your body. It’s heavy, slow, immutable. An organic blob of skin cells, bone structure and fat cells.
Our thoughts, jokes, dreams, ideals and experiences – all the things we’d like to think make us human – are reduced to something insignificant.
Try to think about what you would reply if someone says “you’re ugly” or “you’re a WOG”. Hint: “No I am not!” respectively “What of it?” are not so effective.
I’m stuck with looking different. At least in Sweden. Are we aware of this in Sweden, how similar we all are in this country? How segregated it is? In Stockholm I hardly ever see people in the central parts of the city who look like me, or my dad.
The first time I was in New York was the first time I really felt comfortable my body.
My appearance did not stand out. It didn’t expose me as being a foreigner. There were a thousand nationalities and a thousand appearances and no one really had time to go around and ask people where they came from.
Many times have I thought that I should move away from Sweden, someplace where my non-blonde hair and my non-white skin wouldn’t signal, as it does here, that I am ”from somewhere else”.
But what would it make a difference? Racism exists in all corners of the world even though it may take different forms. What would I say to that little girl whose father thought I was ugly? Try to escape? Run for your life? For this world will judge you, limit you, demand things of you that you should never give?
What I would like to say to that little girl is this: “Never let anyone decide for you if you are ugly. Let no one complain about your skin color, how you talk, or how much you weigh. Refuse to be reduced to just a body, for you are so much more than that. Let no one make you feel that you do not belong here. This world is yours to enjoy, to take over, to take your place in. You are no stranger here!”
SANNAH SALAMEH was born in 1983 in Malmö, Sweden. While growing up, her family lived periodically in Saudi Arabia. After having tested a number of activities – studying in Lund, Sweden, working as an interpreter, living in Scotland, running a catering firm and about a hundred other things – she decided to become an artist. She started at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she studied for three years. After graduation, she began working as a program host on the children’s program Bolibompa. She divides her time between Swedish Television, her own studio and the old mansion she calls her home.
Photo: Johanna Ritschser