Words by Hasan Kilani
Translated by Nawara Ali
Art work by Yasmine Diaz
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
It took me a long time to write about my personal experience in Chicago, USA for many reasons. For one, I didn’t know if anyone would care about my story because of my privilege. Then I noticed how current events continue to be represented in politics and mainstream media, still laced with Islamophobic and anti-Arab discourses, portrayals of the Muslim/Arab man as barbaric terrorist, and automatic linkages between Islam as a religion and terrorist crime. The tropes don’t seem to change, and my everyday experience in the US seemed to mirror these broader patterns.
The American Dream
I arrived in Chicago in May 2017 to complete a fellowship with a human rights organization. I lived with a “host family” during the first two weeks to help me orient toward the city, the new culture, etc. It was Ramadan, and the family took great care to prepare halal food for me and designate a specific prayer room. I appreciated their kindness, I responded graciously by asking them not to burden themselves, and informing them that I wasn’t fasting, didn’t follow religious dietary practices, and didn’t pray.
Around that time, we went to celebrate “Memorial Day” at a neighbor’s home. A number of people were gathered for a “grill and chill” (a barbeque). Shortly after I sat at my table, a neighbor turned to ask, “Why do you hate Jews?” I was shocked and asked, “Who do you mean by ‘you’?” to which she responded “You guys…” Again, I inquired further, “Do you mean ‘us’ in Jordan or ‘us’ Arabs, Muslims, or people of the Middle East? The answer varies depending on perspective, but the answer in the end is not hate.” She responded with surprise, “Ohhhh, what’s the difference between them?” I began explaining things simply referencing Edward Said’s Orientalism, and then mentioned the religious diversity of the Levantine countries alone. She then clapped back, “What is your religion?” Again I was shocked, remembering how my expat friends had told me that this is considered rude in the West.
After two weeks with the host family, I was issued a bank card and residency papers, and began looking for an apartment. I was initially looking in Boystown, a famous LGBTQ neighborhood in Chicago that had great bars, restaurants, cafes and commercial shops. I contacted people through a number of sites, especially Craigslist, but didn’t receive a single message back after two days. I called a friend to ask if I had unknowingly done something wrongs, and he told me “You’re using it correctly, but your name is ‘Hasan Kilani’ and your looking for houwing in a gay people’s area…” I was shocked. To prove his point, he rewrote my message and signed it with the name Michael, and I got a response within 15 minutes. He advised me to look in a place where there were Muslims or Arabs, or anywhere that was not the Northern area which was ‘for white people”. I laughed and told him “Where am I? South Africa in 1986?!” In the end, I chose to live in a Mexican neighborhood near center city.
We know you are not a terrorist
Though I lived far from Boystown, I used to go there frequently to try to find a place with “people like me” or where I could fit in. I would randomly talk with people at bars (mostly white gay American men) and they would always initially ask me about the situation of gay people in the “Muslim world.” My response was that there is no such thing as the “Muslim world,” and that if there were I didn’t know about it or the situation. I would instead talk about myself as a person from Amman, tell some of the bullying and negativity I specifically faced, and note that many societies and individuals do not accept differences from other parts of the world. In the end, I would generally finish the day with friends, and we would go to a restaurant or bar and laugh safely.
My situation in Amman is like that in Chicago; in a capitalist world, people care primarily about money and that is the measure of your worth. But in Chicago, it seemed like they didn’t like that I wasn’t playing the role of the victim who fled the “oppressive, barbaric East” to arrive at a land of freedoms and dreams, and that I wasn’t there to be saved. In fact, they would reject what I was saying when I told them that there were spaces for queer people and some acceptance in some areas, or that my life in Chicago was similar to in my life in “Muslim Arab country in the Orient.” Some even accused me of lying because they had a friend or heard about people in Iran or Saudi Arabia who faced rejection, violence, and death threats.
From a secular Arab to a Muslim Arab
I didn’t talk about my religion or religious practices in Jordan, and I refused to talk about it when asked. I was simply a secular young man who was raised on songs of Ziad Rahbani. But, religion seemed to be at the center of my life in the US. People would ask “What is your religion?” … “Are you Muslim?” … “Do you drink alcohol?” … “Do you eat halal?” Sometimes they would lean ethical, asking whether something were permissible in “your religion” or “your country” I would always answer that I was secular first and didn’t speak about religion, to which they would respond “Don’t worry, you can say you’re Muslim… we know you aren’t a terrorist.”
After all of this, I started answering that I was Muslim or a “bad Muzlim boy” in a joking American accent, just to avoid the topic. It felt like not answering meant that I was evading the question or put me in a position of defending myself against the “accusation” that I was Muslim. I spoke to a Jordanian friend, Noureen, who lived in Los Angeles to see why people cared so much. Noureen and I had been close friends for over a decade in Amman, and we both considered ourselves “cosmopolitical Amanees.” When I told her about these encounters, she shared similar experiences she had faced. Once, a white woman approached her at a party at her daughter’s school and asked, “Does a good Muslim girl drink alcohol?” Noureen answered, “Who told you I am a good Muslim and who are you to hold me accountable?” She mentioned other times when she was called “the one with the weird accent,” or when her colleague told her “I don’t hate Arabs… we are all human” over lunch break. At the end, Noureen assured me not to worry, and that “us being around them face-to-face and being so different from media stereotypes and hideous images on news screens challenges their ideals.” This, she thought, was what was causing the violent reaction.
A state of reconciliation with the past and belonging
I grew up watching Hollywood movies and series that showcase freedom like Sex and The City, Queer As Folk, Modern Family, but it hadn’t crossed my mind that these shows were representing only the lives of privileged white people in particularly liberal-leaning areas of the country until I moved to Chicago. It struck me then that I hadn’t seen a film about the lives of gay Arabs or immigrants, stories of cultural or social tragedy, or stories of displaced LGBTQ peoples (up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, reflecting a disproportion of homelessness more broadly). When meeting Arab people in diaspora, you will find a touch of disappointment or frustration in how the realities of “the American dream”; it is far from the “ideal life” they had imagined for LGBTQ people in Western countries.
I returned to Amman with a different perspective. Now I appreciate my friends more and we understand each other well. We laugh at the same jokes and memes with quotes from Haifa and Elissa interviews, listen to Ruby and sing along to “Inta Aref Leh?”, dance and laugh loudly. I also appreciate hanging out on roofs or balconies with hookah, and using our remaining money to get shawarma.
I might have been disappointed with my experience in the US (and gaining 22 kilos from sitting at home), but I am grateful for it. Perhaps most importantly, it taught me how to acknowledge my privileges and how it is so relative. In Amman, I see myself as a cosmopolitan young man fluent in two languages and with international experience instead of how they labeled me in America as the “Arab Muslim guy with a strange accent.” Despite the challenges and discrimination I faced due my sexual identity in Amman that always made me think that I need to leave the city. I have discovered that I am a complex of identities that might be integrated depending on the space. Today I am able to be integrated in different spaces regardless of my sexual, religious and ethnic identities.