“Something doesn’t feel right,” I thought to myself as I walked down the streets of Edinburgh, where I had landed a few months ago to begin a graduate program. The evening sky was clear and the landscape a scenic mix of lush greenery and historic gothic architecture, the sort of enchanting atmosphere any child growing up with Disney would find themselves swooning over. I passed by one of the city’s most beautiful cathedrals and sat on a bench facing its side, feeling whole and incomplete at once. It was as if I was breathing in that moment but unable to find enough air to fill my lungs with.
I searched for what was making me so uncomfortable and why it was beyond my grasp. Was it a personal feeling? An unfulfilled desire? A sense of exclusion? A vague longing? It felt too easy losing my sense of grounding, like I was holding on to a thread that I could some days grasp with ease and other days slipped away from me. I was surrounded by everything I could ask for, but realized that sometimes it only takes mere moments for it all to fall apart.
Being a queer Arab away from home is both liberating and isolating. At first, there is a feeling of extreme lightness at the novelty of anonymity. Nobody knows who I am, where I’ve been, what contours of my identity I had spent shaping for so long in conversation with the world around me. I am finally offered the opportunity to start life anew, to put on a cloak of invisibility and exist away from the very oppressions that drove me away, even if temporarily.
Reveling in that anonymity feels nice: I could use dating websites without having to worry about whether I was being stalked; utter the very words ‘I’m queer’ at social gatherings that made space for me; kiss my girlfriend at Pride knowing my reputation won’t be indefinitely tarnished, or attend drag parties that allowed me to explore the infinite dimensions of gender and self-expression. These were all important ways of embracing my sense of self in the world, and I knew that to undo a deeply ingrained language of shame and self-sabotage, I needed to take the leap into the proverbial abyss. Yet, contrary to what I had anticipated, it wasn’t bottomless, and my crashing was met with the realization that liberty was not enough. The shelf life for the comfort of being seen by strangers proved shorter than I imagined.
Queerness isn’t just about sexuality or expression, after all, but about the many dimensions within it. What is my queer history and upbringing? What values does it carry and how does it understand connection? What are its contours, shades, and depths?
Too often, we ask what it means to be queer in the Arab world, but seldom do we ask what it mean to be Arab in the queer world. It’s easy to ask the former because it is rooted in a history of western assumptions about life in the so-called East. It is precisely because queerness is framed as an imported characteristic that we do not question the multiplicities of queer identity or the ways in which it takes shape in different contexts. The relativity of queerness became so clear to me when my version of queer came into contact with others.
It was after the thrill of anonymity began to fade that my desire to disappear into “non-identification” faded too. Instead, I had the need catapult towards the opposite: a recognition of my queerness as Arab, and my arabness as queer. In one way, it was a celebration of intersectionality and the politics of complex identities; in another, it stemmed from a deep loneliness with feeling like my “brand” of queer, one that emerged from my culture, was not being recognized.
Perhaps that’s what happens when one is met with misrecognition or neglect – it becomes a more prominent part of one’s identity. When at home, my queer identity brings itself to the forefront; when away from home, my Arab identity does the same. But the truth is that the two are so deeply intertwined that any attempt to dissociate one from the other feels like undoing the seams of a dress I had spent my entire life sewing.
In The Homeland: Between Memory and History, Mahmoud Darwish describes the relationship between identity and exile as one that is mutually enriching. He says, aptly: “when you are in your home, you don’t glorify home: you don’t feel its importance and its intimacy, but when deprived of home, it turns into a need and a lust, as if it is the ultimate aim of the whole journey.”1 Even one’s romantic, desiring journey turns into one that is permeated by a lust for home.
For me, my distance from home meant that I sought to find home in a partner. It manifested as a longing for my love language to be habibti and not sweetheart; for my ideal date to be a walk on a fragmented pavement of the beiruti corniche that made my brokenness and nostalgia feel wanted;for waking up on a peaceful Sunday morning listening to Lena Chamamyan as my partner and I prepared breakfast. I longed for the ability to hold onto both worlds: my love of home, and my love of another. My love of another while at home. All the while knowing that the two were somewhat irreconcilable.
Being a queer in exile is living in a perennial state of liminality, existing neither fully here nor there. It is recognizing that I will always need to relate to the world around me in bits and pieces. Or as Edward Said puts it, it is feeling like “I belonged to both worlds, without being completely of either one or the other.”2 Just when I think I fully assimilated into one – either taking up the fully-fledged queer that was content with her open lifestyle, or accepting the compromise of conservatism for a life closer to home and the heart – I was thrust back onto the pendulum, in a swing back and forth between the two.
It isn’t easy, and there’s a lot of grief that comes with floating. But as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “you learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language, and the grasping for language.”3 Language is there to remind us that home is not always about where we are, but a signification of a sort of realization. When we bring something home to someone, we make them realize its full significance. And when we say that something is close to home, we refer to the way it deeply resonates with us. Sometimes we drive something home to someone by repeating it many times until it is understood. And other times, we journey far away from home only to learn that home is where the heart is.
May our hearts learn to bring queerness home, and home back to our queerness.