Zeinab Benchakroun Exclusive Interview – ‘In My Opinion, The Word “Success” Is Problematic’


Zeinab Benchakroun was recently interviewed by TheCelebrity.Online Magazine and below is the Q&A session we had with her.

Zeinab Benchakroun As Cover Story – January 2024 Edition

Could you provide a brief summary of yourself, including your background, interests, and any significant life experiences?

I am a Moroccan woman. I grew up in my home country within an extended family, in a culture where the intensity of the community has been as much a teaching as a hindrance. I cannot talk about my background without mentioning my family. My ancestry comes from Andalusia (Muslim & Jewish) who fled the Spanish inquisition. My parents and grandparents (including my maternal grandmother) were part of the independence movement of Morocco from Spanish & French protectorate. These stories instilled in me, at a very early age, an awareness of geopolitics, colonialism, patriarchy, human rights, and social justice. My early personal and professional choices have been for a long time dictated by social constraints. I married at 21 and am a mother of 3. After graduating with a master’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business administration in France, I worked for years in corporate services in Casablanca, Morocco.

On May 16, 2003, terrorists’ attacks in Casablanca aroused in me the urge to understand what is happening for this youth who end up by blowing themselves up. From there, my focus shifted on the disadvantaged areas of my city. I first joined a network of neighborhood organizations. While I was thinking that I could bring my experience in project management to their work, I realized that I had a lot to learn from them, starting by bartering management proficiency for listening to all voices and building community. Then, while working on bringing access to water and sanitation in slum areas, I was blown by the generosity of those who have the less; women living in shanty towns would often invite us to eat a delicious couscous while we were just doing our regular job.

After a couple of decades, I moved to the United States where I had to start from the very beginning. The following years often felt like crossing the desert. I went back to college. As I became more aware of the climate crisis, I joined a grassroots environmental organization in California and became a board member. Fairly quickly, I could pick up the emotional toll on people sensing the existential threat and especially after the election of Donald Trump who rolled back many hard-earned environmental regulations. Thus, I learned to facilitate workshops on ecological anxiety. As I undertook myself a transformational path, I also trained in coaching to help others find their way towards a meaningful life.

I am now committed to working with change makers, leaders, activists, minorities, and people from diverse backgrounds to support them in building courage and resilience to pursue what matters the most for them. And with this heart-centered community, I aim to contribute to a reconnection with our true nature, with our natural environment, and with our deep survival impulse to bequeath a livable planet for future generations.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life and how did you overcome it?

One challenging thread that has been very present in my life is to be true to myself. And in some ways, it is still a challenge. I used to stay silent or tweak my true beliefs in order to fit in. How others perceived me used to be important for me. But little by little, it put layers on me, a kind of mask, to the point that I became disconnected from my own self. It took me to realize the disconnection and a journey of coming home to my core essence. And it is a journey, so it means that I don’t expect to arrive in a state of complete authenticity. Meanwhile, I am nurturing self-compassion and enjoying the ride.

Can you share a significant aspect of your cultural heritage that has played a crucial role in shaping who you are today?

I learned in my home country to navigate paradoxes and contradictions as they are present in our daily lives. I found out later, when living in developed countries, that it increased my ability to be flexible and to hold complexity and nuances in the modern world that tends to specialize people and put them in boxes of what they are and what their competencies can be.

What motivates and inspires you on a daily basis?

I am inspired everyday by the sun and the moon. I am inspired by this quote from Native American activist Sherri Mitchell: “Even in this darkness night, we can anticipate the coming of a new dawn”. When I see the mountains around me, I feel the sacredness of our planet and our ephemeral existence as individuals but also as a species. Any tree or bush I encounter on my daily walks is a testimony of the force of life, especially the little weeds that cross the concrete and come to the light. The song of the birds and the presence of my little birdie (my youngest son) fill my heart with beauty and joy.

How do you balance work, family, and personal life?

Although I am well organized, I am still not the best at balancing work, family, and personal life. I am kind of passionate and obsessive. When I am on something, I struggle to set the priorities, except for my children for whom I usually give my whole possible care. One way I found easier to balance is to listen to my body. For example, when I am feeling contracted in my shoulders, it is usually time to take a break from work. And when I let go of my “to-do” list, I can see more clearly what is important to attend to. I slowly let go of the need to be efficient and productive. I try to listen to what is fruitful or meaningful inspired by how a tree grows her branches in the direction of light. I am also keen on being just “present” and sometimes do less or even do nothing. It brings me clarity before action.

Can you describe a turning point in your life that helped shape who you are today?

I don’t see myself shaped out of context or out of relationships. I see my life more like a river maturing slowly through all the flows of different affluents. Still, to name key elements that helped shape who I am today: my children who pushed me to question my parenting patterns and my worldviews, my relationship with Nature in solo times spent in wildlife in California, an increasing awareness of different channels to perceive and interact with the world (mind, body, intuition, energy, soul etc.), and learning from indigenous and eastern traditions.

Can you share an experience where you felt a clash of cultural values and how you resolved or navigated through it?

I have to say, I am not comfortable with the expression of “clash of cultural values”. It reminds me too much of the war rhetoric, especially in these hard times of ongoing conflicts and genocides. It also takes me back to an old article written in 1993 by Samuel Huntington, “The clash of Civilizations”, designed to prepare the West world after the Cold War to a new enemy, China or Islam. I like to tap into the wisdom of our shared humanity in order to nurture compassion (compassion literally means to “suffer with”) and to mend the cracks in our broken hearts.

Have you faced unique challenges as a diaspora individual, and how did you overcome them while maintaining a strong connection to your roots?

My challenges have been the pressure to assimilate and to embrace the Western values as they are often considered in Western countries as “universal” values” (and also sometimes in the Global South too). I was a bit confused during my upbringing as I attended a French school in Morocco where we were taught that France was more advanced than our Moroccan society because of the age of Enlightenment, secularism, democracy etc. I realized later how neo-colonialism is still prevailing through education, business, and culture in hidden aspects of institutional forces even after our political independence. Then, living as a diaspora individual in France and later in the United States, it became clear that my differences were accepted only if it were superficial and if it brought exotism and color to the myth of a melting-pot. Two elements helped me navigate through this challenge. First, I always felt in my guts the need to keep the connection with my roots alive through speaking my language at home, listening to music (my favorite is Gnawa music, a mix of Sufism and African animist rituals that symbolizes for me the African roots of Morocco), and celebrating traditional feasts. Second, I was lucky to socialize with people from different cultures and backgrounds who gave me more confidence in my own cultural heritage and showed me how we thrive all together more in a diverse ecosystem.

How has your cultural background influenced your personal and professional aspirations?

Something stayed with me all my life from my cultural background is the solidarity between women. I was raised watching women in my home country constantly helping each other, in difficult times or even in celebrations. I think this started to nourish one of my core values that is very well expressed by the Ubuntu philosophy: “I Am Because We Are”. My personal and professional aspirations are thus to support others and the collective.

What is your definition of success and how do you measure it?

In my opinion, the word “success” is problematic. It points to personal achievements as if we could accomplish something without a support system. Indeed, it starts with the human care takers when we are infants, with Mother Earth who provides food, water and air, then with the family, the community etc. It is even more emphasized in Western cultures where the success stories feed the myth of the self-made man. For me, it is the foundation of modern society that builds on separation and divisions to weaken the civil society and allow big institutions & corporations to run their agenda.

What I aim for is harmony: harmony within myself (with my core values, embracing my strengths and my weaknesses), harmony with my loved ones (which means letting go of projecting my values on them and respecting their sovereignty), harmony with people around me, harmony with the land I currently live on, harmony with the non-humans I encounter, harmony in sowing seeds of love for a more harmonious world. As for measurement, I am working on sensing signals from my nervous system about the level of harmony/disharmony around me. I believe that our rational mind is unable to measure harmony otherwise the world wouldn’t be in its current state of destruction.

Can you share a situation where language presented both a challenge and an opportunity in your personal or professional life?

Immigrating to the US in my forties without a strong academic English felt as a disadvantage. It was my main motivation to go back to College. I needed the ability to understand and elaborate fully in English and to express the nuances. I am so grateful now to be able to navigate between different languages and between cultures. I can see how multilingualism and multiculturalism is so beneficial to gain wider perspectives and multiple approaches to any situation.

Additionally, how do you actively contribute to and give back to both your first and second homes, be it through community involvements, philanthropy, or other means?

I usually favor local work and staying connected to my local community wherever I am while paying attention to what is happening elsewhere, especially in my home country. For example, I was active locally through a grassroots environmental organization when I was living in the United States. And after the earthquake that hit Morocco in September 2023, it was important for me to, at least, support financially local organizations.

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