I am honored to be featured in Arab News, as it is a Saudi Arabia-based news outlet with the power to reach and influence audiences around the world. I was recently honored as part of “40 Under 40,” an award given by the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, boarded by top statesmen. This award is given to 40 professionals around the world and I was humbled to be chosen among them.
Although I am not a policymaker or government official, I believe my heart’s work and passion for the Arab world has touched those both in the US capital and others with similar heart and passion. The work I have been doing for the past eight years has centered on bringing people together in settings where we can see each other as humans and have candid conversations. My capability is derived purely from my upbringing and being guided by emotion. Where emotion is perceived as a taboo, I have found it to be fuel in the workplace. I believe that sharing the story of where I came from has shaped me into the person I am today and helped me achieve this honor.
My family’s blend of cultures pushed me in a direction I continue to walk in today; I just did not discover that until my time at college. My father is Palestinian and his parents found a better living in raising their children in Riyadh. Although he admired the Kingdom, he went to university in the US, where he met my mother, a German-Hungarian Islam convert who had an appreciation for the people of her spouse. This coupling led to my sheltered fusion of cultures growing up.
Where emotion is perceived as a taboo, I have found it to be fuel in the workplace.
My childhood home here in the US was adorned with Arab decor. Believe it or not, my family had truckloads of sand imported so that they could feel the Kingdom at home. My father brought the dunes to New Jersey.
I think that, in some way, my father’s romanticism of always wanting to return to the Middle East — just waiting for the right work opportunity — and the support my mother offered in recreating the region for us in the meantime, left me with a constant Arab nostalgia and yearning. How could one grow up in this tragically romantic environment and be anything but poetic?
It was this yearning that created emotions that were expressed in my writing. I was often told throughout my childhood that I was an overly emotional person and, to an extent, that is true, but it has been my fuel. Even in my days at Georgetown, my alma mater, the professors would mark me down because my essays were “too flowery” or the language was “poetic,” not “academic.” For the life of me, I could not understand how to change the sentences in my essays to speak to academia without using emotions that we all experience. Since emotion was strongly discouraged, in the academic world, I turned to university nights, when I would simply write poetry from the heart about anything.
At that time, I was introduced by a friend to a legendary Arab poet and composer, who read my poetry, saw my heart in it and offered to make a CD of his orchestra to my poetry. However, there was a voice inside my head that said wearing my heart on my sleeve does not have to be through poetry; that maybe poetry should be kept within me. It ultimately was not my calling. I declined that path. And although music, art and poetry were ways for me to express my heart, I believed change would happen on another path. So, I returned to writing alone at my desk, holding my powerful emotions close.
Without that experience, I would not have had the opportunity to befriend great musicians, artists and poets. These passionate people who convey their raw and real emotions through their work guided me the way a composer leads a symphony. Even though my flowery writing led me to receive “C” marks at university, it is also one of the reasons my writing and efforts have gotten attention —because of how I emote. With my heart and pen, I have been able to give and receive grace in some of the most chaotic times and won praise from Capitol Hill and Arab officials.
I will say that, even though I never became a recognized poet, I still continue to express my passion and heart in every endeavor I undertake. In some ways, I do consider myself as being poetic and authentic to myself, as it requires both empathy and communication to make two worlds connect — after all, that is poetry. I may work on a different challenge for a different client each year, but I work tirelessly to find what is the opportunity, the lyric, that can tie us together.
• Sarah Elzeini is a founder and CEO of SMZ International Group, a boutique strategic advisory and activities firm. Her clientele includes law firms, nonprofits, the private sector and sovereign states. Twitter: @SarahElzeini