Discover more from SWANA speaks
#1: “I became vegetarian when I was nine... unheard of in a Middle Eastern family”
Yanar Alkayat on Olympic weightlifting, British pub culture, and inspiring women to defy expectations
Happy Friday, lovely readers!
I couldn’t be more excited to bring you SWANA speaks’ first guest, Yanar Alkayat, head of fitness product testing at Hearst UK's Women's Health, Men's Health, and Runner's World magazines.
I met Yanar in 2017 at my first graduate job at a start-up wellness magazine based just off London’s Edgeware Road. Days were a whirlwind of Instagramming, ducking through overflowing product cupboards, and trying out every new fitness trend that came our way — electrical stimulation workouts, light-therapy yoga, you name it!
New to London, new to fitness, and new to, well, just about anything that wasn’t undergraduate tutorials and disco slime, Yanar (who was my boss!) became an oracle of all things fitness, food, social media, and muddling my way through that first job.
Yanar’s ambitions in both work and fitness continue to serve as an inspiration for me — check out her Instagram to see why! — and I’m so thrilled to share the below conversation. We talk about being both Iraqi and British, Yanar’s relationship with fitness, and who she finds inspiring:
How do you define who you are, and how much of that is interwoven with your Iraqi heritage?
Both my parents are Iraqi, and I was born in Baghdad. My parents left to escape the Iraq-Iran war soon after I was a year old. I went to primary school in Streatham, South London, and we then moved to Hampshire when I was at secondary school. After university in Swansea, I moved back to London, as living in a big city with diversity in people and life is where I’m most comfortable. My parents tried to integrate into British society while retaining some connection to their Iraqi culture and heritage – mainly through friends, family and food – so who I am is a culmination of all of these experiences. Some very positive, while others are deeply challenging.
How do you understand yourself in terms of race?
I identify as Middle Eastern and call myself Iraqi British. It took many years to find a way to racially describe myself that felt reflective of who I am and where I’m from. I am Middle Eastern in blood and heritage, and British in how I have lived. It bothers me hugely that the Middle Eastern option isn’t available on government ethnicity forms as racially that’s where my roots are from. We’re not exactly a small minority.
What was your relationship with your heritage like growing up?
I believe I downplayed my Iraqi heritage growing up. Iraq was often in the news with negative connotations: war, sanctions, or dictatorship. I recall actively avoiding saying I was from Iraq over some years. My dad has Turkman ancestral roots, so I used to say my dad was Turkish – which felt more familiar for people to place – and left it at that. Later in my 20s, I readjusted my relationship with my heritage, and now I’m proud to say I’m Iraqi British.
Going to secondary school in a predominantly white area, and constantly having to answer to my parents’ Middle Eastern expectations was challenging. We were not brought up religiously but the drinking and pub culture that’s normal for teenagers was alien to them. It was difficult for everyone to navigate. My friends also couldn’t understand why my parents were stricter than others and why I wasn’t allowed to do stuff that seemed normal.
As a young adult, I never fit the mould of a traditional Iraqi girl/woman, but simultaneously struggled to feel at home in many aspects of my British life. I was conscious of being the only non-white face in a pub and I had no non-white friends until my 30s, which meant it was easy for me to feel othered. I felt this in work life too. I was passionate about building a career as a beauty journalist on glossy magazines, but it took a long time to carve a path. I didn’t fit the standard look of a beauty writer (usually white, blonde and beautiful), which made me feel awkward and out of place, and I struggled to make peace with my differences (bigger nose, bolder personality). It’s only since my late 30s that I’ve found I can comfortably express who I am and enjoy how I look.
How has being both British and Iraqi influenced your approach to life?
I think the culture-clash has added an extra layer to navigating life, but it’s made me determined to figure out who I am and be comfortable (and happy!) with that. In my 30s, I questioned societal norms (both Middle Eastern and Western) and decided what was and wasn’t right for me. There are relatively defined expectations around marriage, children and gender roles on my Iraqi side, while western culture has its ideals for women, too. Pushing back against these norms hasn’t been easy - several years of psychodynamic therapy have helped me find inner peace and confidence – and I’ve since chosen to live my life happily, marriage- and child-free. I spend my time on passion projects instead that enrich my life in other ways. I’m grateful every day that I’ve had the freedom and capacity to make those decisions and live as I do. Living life through a mixed culture lens has also led me to be curious about other people’s multicultural and diasporic experiences.
I hope to inspire others from a middle eastern background to take control of their health and make fitness part of their everyday life. Enjoying movement helps to keep you well, physically and mentally, and should not be bound by cultural expectations or limitations.
You have THE MOST inspirational fitness journey. Do you think your diasporic identity has contributed towards your relationship with fitness in any way?
Over the years, my immediate and extended Iraqi family have found my lifelong passion for health and fitness to be part fascinating and sometimes ridiculous. I became vegetarian when I was nine, which was unheard of in a middle eastern family, and I ran marathons in my late 20s and 30s, which many of the nuclear and wider family considered to be extreme. Now I train in CrossFit and Olympic lifting, they worry about the risks of lifting weights. Ironically, there are more health risks of not lifting weights! I hope to inspire others from a middle eastern background to take control of their health and make fitness part of their everyday life. Enjoying movement helps to keep you well, physically and mentally, and should not be bound by cultural expectations or limitations.
Is there someone from a SWANA diaspora you find inspiring right now?
In my 20s, I thought MIA was amazing for mixing politics and music. I was inspired by the confidence with which she expressed herself, something I desperately lacked! More recently, I’ve loved the heartfelt instrumental music by Syrian born Maya Yousef. I’ve been to a few of her London concerts and find it hard to hold back tears. In food, I never get bored of Meera Sodha’s recipes. The way she fuses modern with traditional Indian in an easy and accessible way is genius (and delicious).
What is something you have changed your mind about lately?
Pre-lockdown I’d never baked a cake and was convinced that I was a ‘can’t bake-won’t bake’ person. I adore cooking but often freestyle it, so following a recipe felt challenging. I’ve done a complete 360 on this as I put the effort in to learn and now love any opportunity to bake a cake!
What piece of culture has had the biggest impact on you and why?
I’d say Iraq’s food culture and the way love and togetherness is expressed through food has remained part of my life. I grew up with my parents loving to host and put on a feast for others, which I also enjoy doing. I’m nicknamed the queen of dips and whip up humus (or any other type of dip) whenever possible. Still today my parents don’t serve dinner without salad and dips, everything is always well presented and food is always shareable.
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