Words By Joe Polad
Design by Lina A.
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
“I won’t promise you that you will meet the world, but I can promise you that the world will come to meet you instead,” my father said to me once with much temerity brought by the whiskey he’d been entertaining. We had been sitting and discussing statelessness that started in our family after his father’s death. It’s during those drinking nights that I extricate the truth out of him and untangle the knot of his story that has caused so much trouble in mine — of which he knows very little. Arab parents who view their kids through their cultural and religious lenses only are foolish in assuming they know their own children — even more so if their children are queer. Isn’t this how the queer Arab trope goes? Yet there are two more pillars fundamental to this unfortunate trope: forced emigration and premature farewells.
With 2020s overlapping crises that hit Lebanon and the world at large , many of the country’s residents were reduced to waiting on visas in the hope of leaving for elsewhere; the privileged are waiting in line to leave so they might find opportunity elsewhere. What about marginalized queers who want only to exist safely in their workspaces, homes, and streets without harassment of authorities or falling victim to an outdated constitution? What about those who have no chance of leaving? What is forcing this queer emigration is not boarding passes but the phallocentric ideals that are systematized in the government’s corruption.
This de facto and de jure patriarchal reasoning makes it impossible for social and legislative outcasts who desire to belong to do so. It doesn’t recognize the various properties and fluidity of gender or sexuality. This patriarchal reasoning runs on a black-and-white logic that acts against diversity or even equity, as seen in how it renders women second-class citizens by making it impossible to pass their nationality onto their children, making them stateless. It is a logic rooted in fear of the possibility of what might happen if people were free. It renders people like me as non-existent: we are perceived in flesh but not in spirit or essence. The genderless and stateless body, under such legal conditions, is subjected to a double-layered erasure.
Time and again, stateless queers had to kiss their lovers one last time before they watch them go to seek a better life elsewhere. Many learn not to become attached or intimate in a romantic adventure or friendship for fear of the eventual goodbye.
Understanding the statelessness of a genderless body does not only entail careful analysis and introspection, but also a resigned nod to reality. The government official would ask not “who are you?” but “what are you?” The hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice’s Wonderland is thus put to shame. Ironically, a curious acquaintance would ask the exact same question. What are you but a paperless human shackled to a 10,452-kilometer-square confinement that is Lebanon? What are you but that last ride to the airport, the final lift before someone else’s plane takes off? Oftentimes, the answer does not come in the shape of a declarative sentence that begins with “I am”. It comes in the shape of a poem – or else a letter – addressed to a world too blind to perceive this aspect of invisibility.
Queer Arab emigrant stories often omit the answer to this final question from their diaspora narratives. Whether by guilt or honest forgetfulness, they overlook the struggle of the friend who, after bidding them farewell, returns home with little hope of reunion. If words were made of bricks, Babylon’s tower could be rebuilt by the number of goodbyes a stateless Arab queer has to endure. Their loneliness is akin to those who have to adapt to a new environment and a new culture—not unlike those who left. They are haunted by the monolithic landscape in which they are stuck. Lebanon witnessed a new massive wave of exodus following the catastrophe of the August 4th explosion in Beirut. The country was already ailing from an unprecedented downturn which left many struggling to secure basic provisions. Those with valid visas or dual passports were able to flee from the frustrations of Lebanon. Those without passports, without any identification documents, are left to deal with the ever-worsening situation, including the governmental targeting of groups such as the LGBTQIA+ and refugee communities. For some of these people targeted, Lebanon is a just train station or bus stop where they collect themselves as they escape from their anti-LGBT home countries and prepare to move elsewhere.
But, again, what about those who cannot escape? What about queer Middle Easterners who do not possess the right documents or the right privileges to extract themselves from their contextual mayhem? Time and again, stateless queers had to kiss their lovers one last time before they watch them go to seek a better life elsewhere. Many learn not to become attached or intimate in a romantic adventure or friendship for fear of the eventual goodbye. Stateless queers learn to dissociate from their daily lives as a coping mechanism as they constantly try to (re)adjust to their changing but unchanging surroundings. They come to exist only as a silhouette.
It’s funny that, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world began advertising books as a means for travel. But this ‘insight’ isn’t so original for stateless queers. We – the stateless queers – have spent large chunks of our lives traveling through literature, music, films, and other mediums of art that bestow on us powerful wings that free us from man-made lines. In other words, we have been emigrants by imagination. Yet when the moment comes and we have to relocate our feet to the ground – at the end of a book, a movie, or a song – we are quite abruptly reminded of our own prison. And so, we reluctantly cling to the ones remaining, to those who still haven’t purchased their boarding pass, as we apprehensively ask ourselves:
Well, who’s next?