Storyteller Wafa’ Tarnowska explores her own experiences and those of other immigrants to illustrate pride in diversity and the strengths it can bring to many walks of life
‘I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.’
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
The first time I realised that I wasn’t technically white, DNA white or ethnically white was when I was at my chiropractor having treatment for my back. It was a hot summer day and he wore a T-shirt while I wore a sleeveless dress. As he touched my arm to manipulate it, I saw for the first time how dark my skin was against his baby pink skin. At the age of 55, it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t as ‘white’ as other ‘whites’.
This thought had never crossed my mind earlier in my life because I grew up in Lebanon where everyone was a shade of white. My father and his family were blonde with blue eyes – sure descendants of the Crusades – while my mother and her family were dark, Semitic, with interesting noses and a shade of olive-coloured skin that I adore.
Who am I? I asked myself that day. Am I white or am I a tiny bit coloured? How do other people see me? I am an Australian and British Arab who’s a child of war. I’m a refugee who got lucky and was offered residency and two wonderful nationalities because my language skills were needed. Even in my country of origin, Lebanon, I’m from a minority as my family belongs to an ancient sect of Christians, the Maronites, who trace their origins to 410 AD, long before Islam conquered the region. I belong to a tribe of survivors that has given birth to designer to the stars, Elie Saab, and Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet.
I am also a middle-aged woman who lost her job at 56 because I cost too much and proposed a different way of doing things at work. The company I had won numerous awards for in Corporate Responsibility preferred to replace me with two younger women who got paid half my salary and toed the management line.
Most importantly, I am a writer, translator and storyteller who loves to share with people what it means to be triply diverse – in terms of colour, ethnicity, and age. What I would love to share with the Sisters here is how important it is to never give up on their dreams. For I believe that one of the redeeming features of humanity is our ability to overcome challenges. When I find an obstacle blocking my way, I always look for the lesson and the wisdom in the adversity I’m experiencing rather than seeing it as a punishment. That’s why I enjoy reading about people who have overcome adversity and who have become famous in their fields, especially if they are, like me, from minority backgrounds.
One story I would like to share is about Shakira, the singer whose father is of Lebanese origin and whose mother is Colombian. She was not allowed to join the school choir because the music teacher told her that her voice was not good enough. She says that she felt sad and that the teacher was probably right because she admits that her voice sounded a bit like a goat’s!
But her dad, the immigrant, told her to never give up and to keep going, and he was right, because it’s paid off. Shakira is one of the most successful singers in South America and her hips know how to dance even if her voice is not Maria Callas’. I went to see her perform in Dubai and she was truly a mesmerising entertainer. When she sang ‘My Hips Don’t Lie’, the whole stadium stood up and danced with her, every single one of us. Not bad for a woman who was told that she sounded like a goat!
Another immigrant story that inspires me is that of Zinedine Zidane or ‘Zizou’, one of the greatest football players of all time and current manager of Real Madrid. Zidane was born in Marseille, the youngest of five siblings. He is of Algerian Kabyle descent. His parents emigrated to France in 1953 before the start of the Algerian War. His father worked as a warehouseman and night watchman at a department store. Zidane explains, ‘I’m very inspired by him because it was my father who taught us that an immigrant must work twice as hard as anybody else, that he must never give up.’ In an interview with Esquire magazine in 2016 entitled ‘What I’ve Learnt’, Zidane discusses this further, ‘I have an affinity with the Arab world. I have it in my blood, via my parents. I’m very proud of being French, but also very proud of having these roots and this diversity.’
I am also very proud to be a Lebanese-Australian middle-aged Brit because what you get when you meet me is the wisdom of three cultures and that of triple diversity – colour, ethnicity, and age. This combination, I believe, is a unique treasure to share and my reason for continuing my writing and storytelling. As my own experiences and those of Shakira and Zidane show, a diverse background can bring a new perspective, greater creativity, and enhanced resilience to any project, company or society. Trials and tribulations are opportunities to grow and not giving up is the fertiliser needed for this growth.
Wafa’ Tarnowska is a published children’s author, translator, and storyteller. She is also a radio broadcaster, lecturer and Corporate Responsibility expert. Her version of The Arabian Nights (Barefoot Books) won the American Folklore Society Aesop Accolade, it was also the Moonbeam Awards Gold Medal Winner and the Smithsonian Magazine Notable Book for Children. She has written five children’s books, two books of quotes and translated 15 others, in addition to plays and TV documentaries from Arabic, English, and French. Wafa’ has performed as a storyteller at the Edinburgh Festival of Literature, the Emirates Festival of Literature, and Glastonbury’s Arts of Islam Festival among many others. In 2018, she performed at the Tate Modern. She is proud to be part of the ‘Stories in Transit’ initiative working with asylum seekers in Palermo with Dame Marina Warner and other amazing sisters and brothers.