If Iraqi American Zainab Salbi were to describe her story, it would be as a journey from fear to freedom. Growing up as part of Saddam Hussein’s chosen inner circle and made to call the Iraqi dictator “uncle,” the humanitarian, author and activist, now in her early 50s, witnessed first-hand the terrifying hold he had on both her family and her country. “For me, fear has been a very tangible thing — like I could touch it; it was that close,” she discloses.
Having connected deeply with her spiritual identity as part of her healing, Salbi is dedicating her life to sharing the wisdom she has gleaned on her path to inner freedom. Her latest project, FindCenter, is a collaborative undertaking that is breathtaking in its ambition: to gather together ancient and modern teachings in the world’s largest curated digital catalogue of spiritual offerings. The online platform, which launched in September, brings together faith traditions from all over the world — Buddhist, Muslim, Anishinaabe, Christian and more.
She hopes the site will offer access to the varied spiritual practices that have helped her find peace on the other side of trauma. “My aspiration with FindCenter is to unravel that wisdom, to surface that knowledge,” Salbi says.
As a young girl caught in Hussein’s orbit (her father was the dictator’s personal pilot), Salbi silently struggled with deep pain during her childhood. “I saw the transformation in my mom,” she recalls, “from a happy, free-spirited woman — dancing and singing in her home — to someone who was crying and suicidal.” By day, at school, Salbi would hear about the public executions of friends’ fathers, while at night she would spend time at Hussein’s parties, watching him eat caviar and drink champagne with her parents. She likens herself to a modern-day Marie Antoinette, exposed to both sides of the war yet unable to speak to either.
Salbi held her fear and plotted her getaway, imagining that marriage would liberate her. “That was my first idea of freedom: that a man would help me escape,” she recalls. With her parents’ help, she fled to the United States at age 20 in 1990 and married an Iraqi American. But he turned out to be horribly abusive. Alone in a foreign country, she escaped a second time — leaving her husband and starting over yet again with only $400 in her pocket.
“When I was cornered in life, with no man to save me, with no money in my hands, with no family and no country, it was my mother’s teachings that saved me,” she recalls. She describes FindCenter as a storehouse of maternal wisdom — a tool for passing on the knowledge of our mothers and grandmothers in the modern world — though the content is gender inclusive.
This wisdom would ground Salbi as she navigated other crises in her life, including her own burnout after two decades at the helm of a successful non-profit she founded to help female survivors of war. Her fierce dedication to Women for Women International earned her wide recognition and Oprah appearances. But behind the scenes, Salbi was struggling with the shame of repressed memories. She resigned as CEO in 2011 and embarked on a journey of spiritual healing.
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“I have redefined the meaning of freedom over time,” Salbi observes, her gentle brown eyes reflecting the light. A health crisis and near-death experience in 2019 took her to the edge again, she shares, forcing her to reassess everything about how she lives her life. That’s when Salbi received a message from longtime friend and tech entrepreneur Neal Goldman. “He told me that he wanted to create a platform that helped bring the wisdom of all time in one place and [supported people] on their spiritual journey,” she says. Inspired, Salbi came aboard as FindCenter’s chief awareness officer. She also hosts the site’s new podcast, Redefined.
While mindfulness and spirituality platforms are abundant in our pandemic world, FindCenter is unique in its sheer volume of curated content. This leads to some questionable inclusions, with celebrity self-help guru Tony Robbins, for example, presented alongside teachers like the late Buddhist peace activist and poet Thich Nhat Hanh. (The site has begun adding red flags next to teachers whose actions — in Robbins’ case, accusations of sexual misconduct — have raised concerns.) For Salbi and her team, however, “the goal is not to summarize or distil wisdom — instead, we are enabling connection to content from highly regarded teachers across a wide range of traditions.”
Salbi reflects that her mother, a secular Muslim, taught her to see God in all of Creation. “‘Honey, don’t think God is up there. See God in everything. See God in the trees and the ground,’” she remembers her saying. Years later, alone on the land in northern Ontario — where she makes an annual pilgrimage to learn from Anishinaabe traditions — Salbi would come to understand her mother’s teaching. During this time of fasting, she laid down on the forest floor and listened to Mother Earth. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Earth has a heartbeat,’” she recalls with emotion. She hopes FindCenter can help guide others toward their own sacred encounters. “If I can connect to my heart in this way, and to others in this way, and to nature in this way, and to the divine in this way,” Salbi believes, “then everyone can.”
Julie McGonegal is an associate editor at Broadview.
A version of this story first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “Unravelling wisdom.”
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