Across a Divide

Safa al-Saeedi leads a double life: One in Yemen, one in the U.S.

I grew up in a household where my dad has been always supportive. He always praised women for their minds and for their compassion. I never got the sense from my father that women were inferior; I never felt that I was less than my brothers. Whenever he would see an amazing woman on television, like a scholar or a scientist, he would always tell me to come and watch. My dad supported me in my travels and when I decided not to be a doctor in my career choice. Even when I started wearing the headscarf, my dad was like, “Are you sure?” So that basically painted in my mind a whole different picture of what a woman is.

My dad insulated me from what many girls in my society go through—from what it means to marry at a young age; from seeing myself in the future only as a mother with kids. For some girls, university education is a luxury. On my mother’s side of the family, the women are kind of complacent and quiet, and a woman’s education is not that prioritized. As soon as you hit sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, you start to get married in many parts of Yemen. This makes me feel divided when I talk about women in Yemen. It’s not easy to make a sweeping statement about which side is which because both exist.

I feel like a misfit wherever I go. It’s always reduced to where I come from, or where I am, it’s never who I am, what I think. Sometimes I feel that I have two persons in me. I feel like Safa at Duke is different from Safa at home. The problems that I face here are different from the problems I faced there. Students here are concerned about what they’re going to do after Duke, internships, study abroad, their families, getting a car. My problems are beyond that. I worry about how I’m going to use my passions, where I see myself ten years from now, and where I’m going to live eventually.

It’s so hard for me to reconcile the two worlds in my mind or describe one to the other. My family doesn’t know who my Duke friends are exactly, or what I do for fun. I don’t know how to explain it to them, so I refrain and just keep it to myself. I keep up with the news, listen to traditional music, and write about it a lot in Arabic.

I see home as part of a bigger home. I never saw myself as a Yemeni only. Every region in the Middle East carries some element to which I feel I belong—in terms of literature, music, news. In the media, Yemen is highlighted as a place for terrorism, rather than the fact that it’s one of the oldest centers of human civilization; rather than the religions, traditions, diversity, and historical sites; rather than its diverse climate. It’s not just a desert.

Home for me was idealized when I was growing up. I thought we didn’t have that many problems because of the government propaganda. When I left home, I was like, “Wow, there is so much at home that needs to be improved, so much that we need to work on.”

But when I think of how much resistance I’m going to meet…I think about dreams, and doing and doing and doing, and then as soon as I remember that I’m a woman, I’ll think, “Hmm, that may be my child, my son who makes a difference.” Because I feel like no matter what you do, the overwhelming majority is still going to undermine your role, or not give you a welldeserved place, simply because of your gender. I started realizing there are so many obstacles to what I want to do. In terms of the facilities, opportunities, time; in terms of people who think the same way you think. So now I have more guilt, because I feel if everyone does that, no one will go back and that scares me.

At least now I am more capable of seeing the region I belong to through the lens of an outsider. When I see a presentation or a discussion on the Middle East, I am able to see it from two different positions. Which is good because it balances the scene.

As told to Elizabeth Van Brocklin.

Safa Al-Saeedi was born in Lattakia, Syria, and grew up in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She often spent summers in her father’s hometown of Ibb. She attended an international boarding school, United World College, in New Mexico before coming to Duke. A rising senior, she is an economics and political science double-major and a philosophy minor.

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