I was trying to patch up my own broken heart when I came across the work of a poet named Najwa Zebian last summer.This wasn't another feel-good, lightweight Instagram meme-of-the-day purveyor; the way Zebian wrote about pain really spoke to me – and to hundreds of thousands of others. One of her most shared quotes is from her second book, The Nectar of Pain: "These mountains you are carrying, you were only meant to climb."
It wasn’t until autumn, when Zebian started getting an increasing amount of media coverage, that I found out she was originally from Lebanon and in 2006 had settled with her family in my unassuming Canadian hometown of London, Ontario, near Toronto.
The 27-year-old has amassed more than 700,000 social-media followers, most of them on Instagram. She has also become a presence in North America as part of the #MeToo movement, speaking at political rallies, conferences and giving a TEDx Talk. Her comments have been picked up by The New York Times and she has been featured by the likes of CBS and BBC News.
Although Zebian used to write when she was young, she gave it up after her family moved to Canada from Lebanon, and she felt isolated and alone. It was only in 2012 when, after advising her students to write about their feelings, she started writing about hers once again.
Most of her current social-media following was built and boosted by unsolicited – and unlikely – celebrity endorsements. Zebian only had a few hundred followers on Instagram in January 2016 when she self-published her first book of poetry, Mind Platter, in partnership with Amazon. The first person to pick up on her work was American singer LeAnn Rimes, who posted it on her Instagram page.
In February, French director and actor Mathieu Kassovitz (who plays love interest Nino in the 2001 film Amelie), tweeted He Never Loved You, with this comment: "This poem is from Najwa Zebian; it is the most accurate analysis I've read about this subject. Perfect writing."
Lisa Rinna, a former American actress turned reality star on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, was next. "She posted one of my quotes and I was like: 'Who are these people?'" says Zebian, shaking her head. More followed: Orange Is the New Black actress Danielle Brooks, singer Jordin Sparks and Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, whom Zebian still talks to. With each celebrity share came a big bump in followers – people from around the world who were attracted to the way she wrote about pain, loss, power, education, racism, harassment, survival and love. These days, Zebian gets dozens, and sometimes more than 100, messages each day. "I have this… responsibility to help every person out there who's struggling," she says. "Because I know what it felt like to be in that place."
I meet the high-school Arabic and leadership teacher in a crowded Starbucks, after what has been a very tumultuous week. The pain she wrote about so eloquently, her #MeToo experience, took place over a three-year period, she explains. It began as Zebian was trying to get her first teaching job and sought the help of a man twice her age, who was well-placed in the education field and a high-profile member of society in London, Ontario. She says he then aggressively pursued her and harassed her, but admits that over time, she developed feelings for him.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” she maintains. “I was very innocent and naive about people… lack of experience, lack of knowledge of really anything about these kinds of issues. I perceived the experience differently from what it truly was. And it took me fully coming out of it to have a clear vision and be able to pinpoint all of the mistakes that happened.”
Just before Christmas, Zebian named the man on her personal Facebook page. The man’s lawyer responded in local media by saying it was Zebian who was the pursuer, pointing out that his client was getting married that same week. As Zebian says in her Facebook post, which was briefly taken down by administrators, then reposted at her request, she named him to put the experience behind her – to leave it in 2017.
While the majority of people on social media have been supportive, there has been some negative feedback. “I expected that because I’ve seen women come forward and I’ve seen the kind of shame people think they can make them feel.”
While in London, I hear people speak about Zebian negatively more than once, with many saying that she was immature, emotional, jealous – even mentally unstable. Zebian counters with a theory about why people would rather believe something is wrong with her than that something wrong happened to her."If they actually bring themselves to believe that something wrong happened to you, that means they need to change, there's something that they need to do, so they just say: 'No, something is wrong with you,'" she says.
Zebian says that people seem to want to paint her as one-dimensional, to explain the situation. "I have many things that put me in a vulnerable position: the fact that I'm a woman, that I'm Muslim, the fact that I cover, that I'm young," she says. "All of those factors are intertwined. And people want to just pinpoint one thing that caused #MeToo to happen to me."
One of the most frequent criticisms of Zebian’s speaking out is that she was seeking publicity or did it for the attention, which she denies. While there is an investigation ongoing into the actions of the man she named, and he has had to step aside from at least one of his community commitments, Zebian says she is “done with the experience” – and the negativity.
“I’ve had a lot more people, a lot more brave women and men who’ve contacted me to say: ‘Thank you, you know I’ve gone through something very similar or something much worse or less intense than what you went through, but the fact that you were able to talk about it without feeling shame really empowered me.’ And that’s what I’m trying to focus on,” she says.
Zebian has a lot to look forward to. After a one-year break, she is picking up her doctorate in educational leadership. She is still teaching and plans to work with teenagers in some capacity, no matter what the future holds. She is also working on a third book. "It definitely comes from a more strong and uplifting angle," she says. "It's always been strong and uplifting… but now I feel like I've become a new person."