“Where are you from?”
I always cringe whenever I’m asked this question. It happens a lot, and I despise it. It makes me feel a pit in my stomach and anxious about how I could possibly respond. More than anything, it hinders me from telling my story on my own terms.
Despite this, I used to respond by saying I am Australian first and foremost. But regardless of my Australian accent and having spent the first 30 years of my life in Sydney, many westerners would question my Australian-ness if they knew of by Arab heritage. Some even push this with the insidiously racist remark of how I don’t “look” Australian, or don’t have a name that “sounds” Australian given I am white-passing. Still, I do whatever I can to chip away at the monopoly that white people – mostly of British or Irish heritage – hold on what it means to be Australian. It’s exhausting.
However, I’ve increasingly questioned my Australian identity since entering my 30s. Sure, I love the country for, among other things, its beauty and diversity and I do not take the privileges I have as an Australian citizen for granted – especially as a gay man. But I wouldn’t say I’m patriotic, and I’m not sure if I ever have been.
There are a couple reasons for my lack of patriotism. Firstly, modern Australia was founded by colonial invaders and built by convicts and waves of immigrants. It’s a settler colonial project with an utterly shameful track record on its racist-fuelled treatment of indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and in more recent years, refugees and asylum seekers. Australians themselves haven’t fully reckoned with this, although things are slowly improving. Secondly, I am a “third culture kid”. My parents made sure our culture was part of my upbringing and my social circle consists of many Arab friends, but I can’t shake off that psychological detachment from the homeland itself. I may partake in cultural activities and I may have inherited cultural idiosyncrasies and a rich family history, but my connection to the homeland is still limited. I don’t even hold Lebanese or Palestinian citizenship, I can’t read or write Arabic, and I’ve only been to both countries once as part of a holiday (along with Jordan). Even then, I felt like an outsider as my spoken Arabic takes after the Jaffa dialect from the Palestinian side of my family, mixed with an Australian twang.
Since moving to London four years ago, there have been times where that feeling of incompleteness and detachment has intensified. It’s a combination of homesickness for my loved ones in Australia and a strong yearning to return to the homeland itself for a full cultural immersion. Perhaps to compensate, I now place the emphasis of my identity on being Palestinian or Lebanese first before telling people I’m also Australian. While they overlap, my culture has taken precedence over my sexuality.
I’ve taken a deep dive into learning the cherished family recipes to create a sense of home, much to the delight of my English husband. It’s also become common for me to flaunt my Arab identity on social media, through posting selfies of myself wearing the keffiyeh, to videos of me garnishing my homemade knafeh, calling out white chefs for sharing hummus recipes that don’t even include chickpeas, and making jokes about turning into an Arab baba with my penchant for listening to Oum Kalthoum.
Though I’m happy to preserve and celebrate my Arab culture, at times I wonder if my actions come across as merely performative, or overkill. After all, my extended family across Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine don’t seem to “perform” their culture to the same extent that I and many others in the diaspora do. Perhaps this is because, in the diaspora, there is a pressing need to assert our identity and resist being whitewashed. There is often an expectation for immigrants to “assimilate,” a term I despise because it implies that we must erase our cultural identity and ties in order to prove our worth as citizens. This is especially pertinent since 9/11, which triggered a rise in Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs that shows no sign of subsiding. I’d much rather integrate by celebrating my culture, by creating and holding space for people to engage and share their rich family histories and traditions. It’s a silent resistance to the normalisation and dominance of eurocentrism in all facets of Western culture.
Despite all this, I still hesitate. I’m conscious that my family and friends in the Arab world would see everything I do as reductive or essentialist. Am I just another insufferable third culture kid in their eyes? I often think twice and wonder if I’m feeding into that diaspora stereotype of being an embodiment of “Arab as a personality.” And, I worry if my cultural performativity risks drawing attention away from more pressing issues, such as the war in Yemen or Syria, the economic and political crisis in Lebanon or Iraq, the lives of Palestinians living under occupation, and of course the varied, diverse and complex lives of queer Arabs across the whole region.
While it’s nice to belong to the Arab community, is it a genuine sentimental connection for me? Is there a limit to that connection given the homophobia that is still rampant in our culture, along with the enforcement of heteronormative and patriarchal ideals? Meanwhile, in non-Arab spaces in Sydney and London, I’ve frequently had to endure an insidious expectation to pander to a binary to either just be a gay Australian, or just be Palestinian and not bring my sexuality into it. The former has no doubt allowed me to be more “accepted” in queer community circles dominated by white people, and the fact I’m white-passing also plays a role in this. But the catch is that my Arab identity often goes by unseen or overlooked – both deliberately and accidentally.
In more recent years though, I’ve come to realise two things about my culture. The first is that I despise some of its dimensions and values, especially those that hurt or threaten my sense of self. Secondly, in striving to take a nuanced approach to address these issues, I have found comfort and connection. I’d argue that my celebration of and visibility as a Palestinian or Lebanese – or both – challenges the Orientalist perception that the Arab world is homogenous, trauma-filled and “backwards”. It challenges the expectation that I fit into a particular frame of what people expect me to be, which quite often entails erasing my intersectional identity to prove my worth.
My visibility as gay and Palestinian can also challenge Orientalist perceptions – as well as normalize our existence in the face of cultural stigma and state-sanctioned discrimination and persecution. I am no stranger to seeing the ‘Palestinians don’t like gays’ line brandied about by westerners, and it’s almost always used as a justification for turning a blind eye to what Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation. It also enforces sweeping stereotypes of Palestinians – and other Arabs – being inherently homophobic or anti-freedom. This is dangerous because it’s loaded with the implication that we should choose between our sexualities or our culture; that it’s impossible to have both. It fails to recognize that our culture is just as much a part of who we are as our sexuality. Despite the cultural stigma that exists, our Arab and queer identities are nuanced and inextricably linked – and always will be. My visibility resists the expectations that non-normative sexuality and Arab culture cannot intersect, and also challenges pink-washing propaganda peddled by Israeli government.
Alas, I could well be overthinking everything. Perhaps these conflicts and dualisms can be resolved or embodied through a single person without conflict. To be visible and proud in my own way, complete with flaws and contradictions – and without the interference of the white western gaze. For me to just be. Although my roots lie in Sydney and London, I will always be Lebanese and Palestinian. Not only that – I am just as much Lebanese as I am Palestinian. And I am just as much Arab as I am Australian. There is no such thing as half and half. And I’ve been lucky to reach a point in my life where my sexuality is able to intersect with all of these identities with ease and harmony.
So, where am I from? Well, it’s messy, and there are many reasons why. And that’s perfectly okay with me.