#36: How one makes a life

Plus, Sally Al-Roubaie on navigating two worlds, the allure of unlived lives, and more...

The Greater Conversation is a newsletter from me, journalist and author Alya Mooro, honestly addressing all aspects of life through the eyes of a Middle Eastern / third-culture / woman / human. Each week, there’s some thoughts from me, along with a guest piece, and recommendations of articles, books, podcasts and etc worth consuming.

Hi friends, Happy New Year!

When we last spoke, I was feeling super burnt out. I deleted my social media and took some time off life and it did me good. I know that because, in the last few days of my holiday, I started to feel really excited about getting back to my to-do list and to living once more with intention.

This time of year is always rife with reflection and with the setting of goals, although truth be told, just making it through 2020 was achievement enough in itself. A TikTok that was doing the rounds in the run up to new year really cemented just how naive it can feel to be setting resolutions in the face of the knowledge that any sense of certainty is only an illusion. In the video, a woman laughed and cried her way through the goals she had set herself for 2020, many, if not all of which the Coronavirus had upended. But that’s not to say that there’s no point in setting intentions, or in taking stock.

In the last newsletter I sent out, I wrote that perhaps this year, reflection and planning would come with slightly softer expectations, slightly softer focus, and over the last few weeks, with the help of this journal, I’ve been paying attention to the things I have control over, the things that build a life – my life, and figuring out how I can do and be that as much as possible. It’s not things like “travel more” or “go on a diet”, but small daily actions and habits that, one by one, make me feel good and make me feel most like myself.

For me, these are things as simple as filling out a gratitude diary in the morning, reading for 40 minutes before I start my day – no matter what, making time for exercise and for sleep, for real friends and for myself, being productive and pushing through when I can, as much as I can. And when I can’t, to stop. I take the endeavour, and take taking the initiative seriously, in all aspects of my life.

I’ve just started reading my friend Adrienne Herbert’s recently released book Power Hour: How to focus on your goals and create a life you love and it’s something she advocates. In it, she writes: “If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be that it is possible to change and transform your life. You owe it to yourself to pursue a life that you truly love…

“One of the most empowering things I have ever learned is that I am responsible for my own life,” she continues. “The choices that I make each day have an enormous effect on my health, my relationships, my career, my mistakes, wins, failures - all of it. I’m not discounting the other factors that may contribute to my ability to make those choices, but ultimately my choices are what will determine the outcome.”

It’s something I believe in, wholeheartedly. Our mindsets and the small daily habits and routines we set for ourselves are the building blocks for our days and our weeks and our months and our years. Perhaps especially in an ongoing pandemic and a lockdown 3.0. Figuring out what those building blocks are and adding to them year on year is, I think, how one makes a life.


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Sally Al-Roubaie, 28, London

Born to Iraqi parents and raised in London, of my five siblings, I am the only daughter, and the only child to have not been born in the UK, but in Libya. As a woman, I’ve heard the word 3aib in regards to my body, my choice of clothing, and my aspirations, in addition to threats of punishment from Allah, more times than I can remember. The word 3aib has never once been used against my four brothers.

Aside from my family, at school, too, I always knew that I was different and felt like I didn’t fit in. I was the quiet, introverted girl, who enjoyed watching American films as a child and was always inspired by the carefree and happy nature of the characters.

Whilst my parents were relatively liberal, many of my aspirations were met with disapproval. I was never allowed to go on sleepovers or overnight trips; when I applied to attend university outside London, I had zero support or encouragement from my parents; my dreams to travel solo were always met with negativity. My brothers, on the other hand, had much more support when it came to these very same ambitions.

My mother was a Housewife and was always subdued, I never once saw her make decisions or take the lead. I never understood why, something about it just didn’t seem right to me.

Being told that as a girl ‘you can’t do this and you can’t dress like that’, because ‘you’ll burn in hell’, turned me into a fearful and anxious child. I felt like a walking sin, always doing something wrong, just for being a girl. Despite being raised in London, I felt like I was living in two worlds: at home I was in the Middle East and at school I was in the West.  

Navigating two worlds from adolescence to adulthood has been extremely painful. At home, I was fed a misogynistic version of Islam, one which I hated and made me want to distance myself not only from the religion, but from Arab culture in general. Meanwhile, at school, I was bullied for my unibrow and for having dark, visible facial features, which made me stand out as the ugly ethnic girl who did not look feminine.

Despite wanting to fit in, I never succumbed to peer pressure or did anything drastic, such as losing my virginity (I still am a virgin) or taking up drinking or smoking. For me, these are acts of self-care that I do for my own well-being, rather than for religious reasons.

I have been mocked by Westerners for being a virgin. A man in his fifties once asked if I was ‘just going to let life pass me by.’ Another said I was missing out and even asked if I was scared of men. Arabs, meanwhile, ask me when I’m going to get married and assume that I’m going to be a housewife and mother, neither of which I desire.

A couple of years ago, I had a health scare. It gave me the strength and ability to stand up for myself when I felt as though the world was mentally controlling me. I became more assertive and confident in my ideas and never let anyone – whether that be people in my family, or society as a whole – take centre stage in my decisions. More importantly, I learnt to say no and to speak up when people took advantage of me.

I’ve learnt that being your own individual is the most important thing that a woman can be. That there is no shame in creating and leading your own life; that you are not the property of your family or your future spouse. Being born female does not give anyone the right to decide or create your life for you.

I am a proud introvert who enjoys being alone and have no desire to follow the life structure that has been created by society. Marriage and children strike me as a jail sentence and a threat to female independence. Whilst I’m not completely opposed to marriage, I will never marry for the sake of being married. In my view, being single is a privilege, rather than a case of being unlucky; you have so much to explore and learn about yourself when you aren’t surrounded by people and their garbage 24/7.

Sally was born in Benghazi, Libya to Iraqi parents and raised in London. Currently a Bookkeeper, Sally enjoys art, photography, reading travel stories and exploring new places, in addition to walking, cycling, swimming and roller blading. Follow her on Instagram @globaldiarygirl


To contribute a guest piece to The Greater Conversation, please email me. You can share anonymously too if you prefer.

This newsletter is sponsored by The Doe, a digital publication which shares unfiltered, anonymous stories in an effort to encourage conversation and engagement with new ideas. This month’s theme is Pop Culture and the narrative I want to share this week is: In Defense of Raving During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The narrative puts forward the argument that, while popular opinion and moral judgements dictate that raving during the pandemic is an obvious no, the question is more complicated than it seems, in part due to how raving might, for some, be an essential release during an inarguably dark time. “As a diehard raver, my take on this debate is couched in my deep connection to this culture, which has been formative to my identity and how I relate to the world,” the author argues, adding that prohibition has never been an effective prevention strategy. Personally, I very, very much miss raving and the anonymity and community feeling of a heaving crowd moving instep. I have not gone raving, but I can’t say I don’t understand those who have.

Read the narrative on The Doe

  • Book: Over the break I permitted myself to read nothing but fiction and found myself swept away in worlds and words. I absolutely loved The Vanishing Half, The Other Americans and Silver Sparrow and would highly recommend them all. Some of my other fiction faves are listed here, on Bookshop.org, a new online platform that gives a percentage of each purchase directly to struggling independent bookshops.*as an affiliate I get a commission, too.

  • Podcast: Brene Brown is a household name for her work on vulnerability and I’ve been so enjoying listening to her podcast Unlocking Us. This episode with Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, in which they talk empowerment through empathy and the importance of feeling seen and heard is fantastic.

  • Newsletter: Yousra Imran, author of the brilliant Hijab and Red Lipstick recently launched a newsletter on topics that many girls and women are told are shameful to be open about. I loved her latest one on if it’s 3aib to talk about the men in your community. Also very much enjoyed Anne Helen Petersen’s dispatch on the madness of working through a coup, through a pandemic and etc.

  • Just because I'm single in my 30's doesn't mean I'm 'too picky', argues writer Bianca Barratt in Refinery29. "[The phrase] implies that coupledom is the ultimate and only worthy goal but [it] also... shames women into questioning their own judgement."

  • The women who gave up grooming in 2020.

  • "We have unlived lives for all sorts of reasons: because we make choices; because society constrains us; because events force our hand; most of all, because we are singular individuals, becoming more so with time." I love love loved this on the allure of unlived lives.

A post shared by Alya Mooro • عليا مورو (@alyamooro)

For my latest Restless column, I wrote about how tech-overload and Instagram filters have given me face dysmorphia. And I'm not the only one. In a poll I did on my Stories a few weeks ago, 46% of 260 respondents said they preferred their face with a filter (!)

Read my column here

A quote from a book you should read:

“It’s easy to speak openly of the women we celebrate and model ourselves on becoming, yet perhaps it is the women we silently swear never to become that influence us the most.” - Priya Minhas, The Good Immigrant USA.

Thanks for subscribing! I'm Alya, the person behind this newsletter. I am a freelance journalist and the bestselling author of The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. You can follow me on Instagram here, and Twitter here.

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