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Synesthesia - The Outpost

Inspired by the theme "Possibilities of the Body", I wrote an article for The Outpost following the 'narrative journalism' style. The editor in chief was interested in examining various forces (pollution, corruption, injustice, stereotypes, etc.), trying to understand how they affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically, exploring how our bodies and minds react to and cope with them, as well as the manner in which we deal with these dire circumstances.

I pitched the following story portraying the body as a sensitive tool; Synesthesia as a superpower. I interviewed a Sudanese woman with Synesthesia to keep the dialogue relevant to the Arab world. Please find a snippet of the pitch below.

It was a typical Sunday morning at the office. Each employee nervously waited for their turn to present their idea to the client. Leila, one of the media research and insight representatives, was the last to present. She was the youngest one on the team, and the last person that they hired to join, so she should have been very nervous by default. She was still on probation, having moved to media-hungry Dubai from Sudan only four weeks prior. All she had to do was prove that she belonged.

One of her coworkers passed by on his way out of the boardroom, with a large display board showcasing his latest media proposal, complete with numbers, letters and images. Momentarily distracted by the sensory overload, Leila shifted her attention away from the board and towards her own pitch. The disconnection between the colors and the letters on her coworker’s board bothered her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, slowly thinking back to her pitch and remembering what she was going to say. Leila entered the plain white meeting room and greeted the team. She shuddered at the empty white canvas, but quickly reminded herself that she had one opportunity to showcase her hard work.

“After doing much research, I would like to conclude that the orange font and blue background combination is the most successful. I believed it even more when I saw them interacting in the office. Take Yomna, for example. She is orange. A calm shade of orange, like a light sky in the mere early hours of the morning. When I see her standing in front of Richard, which is a matte rich blue, I am involuntarily calm and pleased at the color combination. They complement each other in a unique way which is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and the senses.”

Leila pointed to the figures on her presentation board, the colors flooding the room. The letters and numbers danced in front of her, only making her case stronger. She explained what the letters and number of the client’s logos meant and how her pitch and rearrangement strengthened the brand's identity. She reminded the client of his initial idea for the logos and the products – things the client himself did not remember. She suggested lining up the male numbers, like 1,4,5, and 10 and separating them from the female numbers such as 2,3,6,7,8 – keeping the two genders segregated to appeal to a more conservative audience. She explained the deep connection between the numbers and the genders – like two film layers that overlapped each other, unable to escape.

The client and the bosses stood up and clapped, semi-surprised, semi-amused. Leila thanked the group and left the meeting room. The minute she bolted, I ran after her, confused about what I had just witnessed.

After an intense interview, I came to learn that Leila is a synesthete, someone who has the ability to experience the world a little bit more colorfully than those who are not synesthetes. Synesthesia is a trait, like having blonde hair or small bones, only more phenomenal. It literally means the combination of two senses and is the Greek word for joint perception – two senses experienced simultaneously. Leila experiences “Grapheme to color” synesthesia, which is the association of letters and numbers with colors or even genders. There are 80 discovered types of synesthesia.

This ability had definitely helped Leila during her educational and learning years; Leila was able to connect numbers to colors and genders, which helped her create stories in order to memorize easily. All she had to do was remember that wahid referred to the strong male visualization, ethnain referred to the softer feminine figure, thalatha was the old lady crouching, etc. Her favorite thing was to tackle the numbers with her multiple colored highlighters – everything had to be highlighted in the right color that suited the letter/number.

Growing up, she always assumed that everyone was just like her until she realized a little over a year ago how weird and abnormal the rest of us were for not seeing the world the way she did. She didn’t understand how we didn’t see the connection between colors, genders and elements. She eventually came to terms that there were no right or wrong ways to experiencing things.

Leila and I spoke a bit about synesthesia and music. People with chromesthesia are able to associate sounds with colors. We spoke about our favorite singer, the world-renowned Fairouz who sings the sweetest Lebanese melodies, and wondered how different her music would feel if we experienced chromesthesia. Would we see a shade of olive green when we hear the notes to Chadi, or a bright sky blue to match the eyes of the main character Alya in El Bosta?

I asked Leila if she was a superhero undercover; she replied with a laugh and a “sorry Pink, I’m just me”. When it was time for her to leave, she adjusted her batman cape and took off, leaving a trail of rainbow colors behind her.

*wahid: the Arabic word for the number one.

*ethnain: the Arabic word for the number two.

*thalatha: the Arabic word for the number three.

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