By Umer Nangiana
She does not fret over what look like daunting everyday challenges. She is always striving to remain out of the clutches of a crippling disease. But as is evident from the groundswell of admirers, she has been successful, and with a smile.
Meet Nawaal Akram Butt, who does not let Muscular Dystrophy Duchenne — which prevented her from going to school beyond Grade 5 and largely confined to a wheel chair — come in the way of cracking up the local stand-up comedy scene.
Crisp with her jokes, she carries wit everywhere, grabbing more attention for her talent than disability. She wants you to laugh with her and she is happy.
Born and brought up in Qatar, like her other siblings, Nawaal had to drop out of school at the age of 10 owing to a muscular disease.
“I have muscular dystrophy duchenne. This is a muscle wasting disease where the body gets weak as you grow old, but because I am a girl, it does not affect me that much because in girls, the condition does not get worse faster than in boys,” Nawaal tells Community in a backstage chat soon after a performance at Black Box Theatre at the HBKU, Education City.
Entering her 20s, Nawaal is fully aware of what ails her, knows how to handle it, speaks fluently and remembers every detail of her forced exit from formal education.
“I couldn’t really climb the stairs when I was 10 years old as I was getting weaker. My parents suggested changing school; so we asked my school (management) if they were going to keep me for the next year. They agreed and asked my parents to pay the fee,” recounts Nawaal.
“When I arrived at school the first day, the head of the primary took me and my parents aside and said they could not keep me for ‘safety reasons’. They said my disability could become a hazard. That it might not be safe for me and if anything happened to me, the school might get into trouble.”
However, she is quick to point to the rule that makes it mandatory for every school to have at least two seats for children with special needs. Her parents wanted to take the school to court for refusing her admission after initially agreeing.
“It was heart-wrenching for my mother to know that I could not go to school because I could not climb stairs and that I could not get an education which would affect my future,” recalls Nawaal.
“As we spoke of taking the school to court; they told us that if we go to court they would expel my other two siblings, an elder sister and a younger brother, who were about to graduate then and that they would not be able to get into any other school,” she adds.
Eventually, her parents did not take the risk and backed off. Nawaal was out of school. Her parents tried many other schools. Every school advised her parents to go to the Shafallah Centre or other such institutions for children with special needs.
But these centres would refuse to take her in as she was mentally, normal and stable. They told her she was fit to get an education with other children in regular schools. And she could not get into independent private schools, which have seats for children with special needs, as she did not know Arabic.
Nawaal ended up just being at home.
“We tried many schools but I was rejected. I was 12 years old then and to know that you are being rejected admission and you could not study because you could not do certain small stuff was hurtful,” recalls Nawaal.
“I fell into heavy depression. I was not on wheel chair from the beginning; it happened only after I fell and broke my leg when I was 12. That made me even weaker since I already have a muscle disease.”
She says her parents have been a huge support to her. They have continued to provide her private tuitions and done whatever they could to enable her to get however much education she could get.
“Whatever I am today and whatever I am doing today, it is all because of my parents. They home-schooled me and taught me everything I needed,” she says gratefully.
Nawaal acknowledges that she might have picked her disease because her parents, both from Pakistan, were first cousins. But, she says, she knows people who are first cousins and they have normal children.
“So maybe it was fate,” she says.
Nawaal, however, has an entirely different approach towards the challenges she faces. She sees her life in an automatic wheelchair as an opportunity to see the world from another perspective.
“I am on a wheelchair; I think I would not have had these chances that I have now to learn new things and to see people differently. Even people, when they get to learn from me about my disability see the needs for people with disability from a whole new perspective,” Nawaal reasons.
“They see that (people with special needs) go out; that they can be happy; that they interact with the society,” she points out.
With her new automatic wheelchair, she is learning to lead a life independent of any assistance.
“My parents got me a new wheelchair because I always needed someone around and my parents want me to be independent. I am trying to become more independent as I grow older,” says the determined young comedian.
She always wanted to do stand-up comedy after first watching it on Youtube and Facebook in 2012, but was shy and kept the desire to herself for almost a year.
“I thought…what if it does not go well. I was afraid people might not laugh because they might not want to be seen laughing with a physically-challenged person (in the frame) and that it would be construed as bad,” contends Nawaal.
It was her mother again, who pushed her to venture. Eventually, she summoned the courage to perform last year and do it well. Stand Up Comedy Qatar (SUCQ), the organisers, invited her again this month for their next edition of the show.
She did even better than the last time.
“Most of what I said was based on my personal experiences and being physically challenged. Most people cannot talk about it but because I am (physically challenged), I can talk about it from my own experience which, at moments, becomes really funny and I can share them at the comedy shows,” says Nawaal.
“I think people need not be so serious about it, they should smile (more often) when they see us. We (physically challenged), too, have a good life and find ways to enjoy it. Life makes us stronger through the hardships we face,” she explains.
Her influences are three comedians, including Kevin Heart, Russel Peters and Hamad al Amari from Qatar.
Although Nawaal’s condition is stable now and she thinks the disease won’t make her weaker, it does affect her daily life as she cannot do things that she used to do. “But I can manage; I have been doing it for many years,” she says resolutely.
But she knows there is a vast difference between an education one gets at school and the one received at home. She would need help from a proper school to let her prepare for an entry test if she ever gets a chance to return to formal education sometime in the future.
Amongst her friends, she is known to make everyone laugh.
“I love to make people happy. I love to take care of people. I love to give people love and show them that they are important,” says Nawaal. “And making people laugh is the best thing ever. You never know, they may be going through a hard day and making them laugh might just help them forget it,” she adds.
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