Why did I pick this book as a lecture? There’s something about Zainab Salbi, that I admire. Her calm, positive and cheerful way of interviewing and talking to people. Her openness. She has a series on #metoo, where she even gives a voice to the accused. I feel inspired by her approach of looking at things. I tend to be extreme, judgemental and hard to move away from a strong opinion. So, obviously, her openness and her ability to listen, are attributes that I miss. It’s not opposites attract, it’s more a thirst to find out, whether she’s always been like that and whether I can change in the long-term. A book with the title “Freedom is an inside job” is clearly going to be about yourself. And honestly, it was the right moment for me to find it. And I can tell you why!
The main hypothesis in this book is that, if we want to change the world and fight the darkness, we have to face our own darkness first. Instead of pointing fingers at the other and looking to oppose the other, we need to recognize that all of us have the good, the bad and the ugly within them. “True change starts with owning our own experience,” Zainab writes. As long as we don’t understand ourselves, see our own weaknesses and embrace the truth in our lives, our view outward will be obscured as well. If we change the way, we look at the world from good and bad to acknowledging that there’s good and bad everywhere, that no culture is superior, then we can allow ourselves to be open to our own shortcomings as well. We will stop telling only the good bits of our lives, we will include our shadows as well. And ultimately “once our own dark and light are more integrated, our voices of protest change from harsh barks that speak to some but alienate others to a resonant call that many, many more people can hear.”
Zainab starts telling her own story then. In 2006 she published a book about her family and their connection to Saddam Hussein. Her memoir was a great success: her past had turned “into a black stone that weighed heavily in the centre of her chest.” But as soon as she opened up about her secrets, she became free and she was able to face other truths as well. Next thing she confronted was the estrangement between her and her husband Amjad. She realised that she had needed Amjad’s kindness, safety and love for herself, because she couldn’t produce it for herself. As it was a loving relationship, it was hard to face that the marriage was over. Leaving him allowed her to deal with the next “marriage”, she had committed to in her life.
Zainab founded Women for Women International in her 20s. Her intention was to help women all around the world to gain their freedom. But unfortunately, during this process she had lost her own freedom. The source of her passion was to spend time with the women, they served. But because she was heading the organisation, she had no time for that passion anymore. She was busy fundraising, leading and keeping the organisation going, which created unhappiness and a major disconnect with herself. It took resigning from the organisation, she had founded, to get one step closer to her own truth.
Looking for the secret sauce that would lead to lasting change in women’s lives, she found that giving the gift of inspiration would exactly do that. This is how she started her new project of amplifying the voices of Arab and Muslim women to show them possibilities of change with their cultures and religions. Letting go of the organisation, she had founded, allowing for change, meant to jump off a huge cliff. But she had to take the big risk, that was involved with leaving a successful business, to listen to her heart and find joy again.
Zainab didn’t stop there. What she felt the most shame for, was how she had treated a childhood friend. Instead of holding on to it and keeping it hidden, she chose to address it and reconnect with this friend. She decided to make amends, and thus was able to let go of the guilt and shame. But it also taught her things, she’d never considered before. She realised then, that making amends carried a kind of freedom, and now she continues practicing it.
When we face people, whose beliefs are polar opposites to ours, it’s easy to lash out and respond with antagonism and frustration. How can they entertain such beliefs? This is ludicrous. This is racist. And so on. A conversation between two different parties can then easily result in a heated argument with lots of finger-pointing. But if we respond with compassion and understanding, acknowledging our vulnerabilities and communicating our feelings, then it’s possible to connect and open up a dialogue. Zainab shows with a few examples, that change is possible, when we also have compassion with people, we disagree with. “If we want to stop the bully, we need to understand how the bully lives in ourselves, too,” she claims. Further on she says, “I have come to understand that the bullies in the world are themselves the masks for what is ugly in our societies.” If we don’t own our own darkness, acknowledge what’s wrong in us as individuals and us as a collective, we hand over power to the bully to manipulate us, because they take on our darkness.
After compassion comes forgiveness. Forgiveness is part of healing, healing ourselves and healing as a society. It’s also a journey of love. If one can forgive without being asked to, it will allow taking a different view of oneself. If we can see the other as a full person with their weaknesses, we see them like we see ourselves. The last chapter is about surrendering control. Zainab shares her experience of travelling to Saudi Arabia with us and how she experienced that letting go, breathing and relaxing into a stressful situation, allowed her to experience beauty. Instead of wanting to be in control all the time, acceptance can ease us into freedom. Her conclusion is, that our soul is our teacher in everything. We need to see it, listen to it and take care of it. This will allow us to make a better connection to the outside world as well. Which can change it.
Honestly, in times of deep division, that seems insurmountable, this book is like a recipe for conquering it. Zainab leads the reader through her own journey of becoming free and more aware. She shares a lot of little anecdotes, but also deeply private stories, which communicate the message clearly. It’s a spiritual book, that delivers old messages in a way, I can find access to them. As I’m experiencing the world through the eyes of my little daughter, and trying to make sense of it, so I can support her with whatever little wisdom, I can pass on later, it’s getting clearer, that all I’ll have to teach her is to explore herself and listen to her inner voice always. But first I’ll have to explore myself and my inner voice. I’m at a point, where I’m privileged enough to turn my life around, but often enough I find myself too scared to do it. The fear takes over and pushes me back into old ways. It’s happened a lot in the past. I feel like I’ve just been offered a job to work on my freedom. Question is, will I accept the offer?