Word by Malak Al-Gharib
Translated by Hiba Moustafa
Digital painting of Sarah Hegazi by Omar Sha3
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
I didn’t write this article to reach a clear thesis or an answer to a specific question, but to relieve some of the sadness of homeland dysphoria. By homeland dysphoria, I mean that state of mind when one can neither let go of their identity with respect to their homeland nor fully connected to it. Writing this was a way to empty my mind and resolve some of my discomfort with my national identity, something that has caused me much hate.
From Queen Boat to Sarah:
I remember when, twenty years ago, I came across the names of those arrested in a case that came to be known as the “Queen Boat Case.” At the time, I was fumbling to understand my sexual orientation, gender identity. The case was formative. It taught me my first lesson about gender and sexuality in Egypt: lesbians and gays are persecuted by society and the State, and are shamed by the media and members of society with malicious joy.
Since my dear friend Sarah committed suicide, I have been even more confused and uncomfortable with my national identity. I think many of my peers in the LGBTQ community feel the same. Her death shook our sense of national identity to the core when we saw all kinds of people from Egypt and the Arab world attacking us on social media.
My personal loss of Sarah was huge because of how she embraced everyone. We stayed close despite the distance between us and the fact that we spoke only occasionally until we both had left Egypt. She paid attention to the tiniest details in our lives, and supported us tirelessly though she herself suffered every day.
The hatred that followed in response to her death was enough to engulf my personal sadness. It put me in a state of what I call “homeland dysphoria,” a state of reflecting on why we still feel we belong to home countries that have no place for us among their people in life or in death. It’s a complicated state of love and hatred that shapes our relation to our home countries, but has become self-destructive. We can’t just “be who we are” because we will be punished severely and systematically by the State. Nor will society show us mercy in life or pray for our souls in death. And if we conform to what society wishes, we will live like ghosts, dead inside.
Despite it all and even after we decided to leave, we feel like we left a piece of us back there at the bank of the Nile, in Tahrir Square, and in the alleys of Downtown Cairo. We think of going back every day, but also fear to return. Our lives will never be what they used to be. We cannot even move forward in our new societies, for we encounter thousands of obstacles and create others that may exist only in our imagination.
Every time I returned home when I was in Cairo, I felt destroyed. It didn’t matter how well I rested, because the next day it would hit me even harder.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article for My.Kali about the LGBTQ community’s participation in the 2011 Revolution in Egypt. I’ve walys been looking for the queer right to historical narration, but now I wonder if there is any point. We fight colonization, pinkwashing, corruption and the rights of our peoples to live a dignified life, but they are cruel to us and wish we were never born into them. Sarah fought for all of this, but none of the people she defended thanked her. My comrades in Egypt have stood with civil society activists in opposing military rule and autocratic regimes in Egypt, but most never thought to stand by the LGBTQ community. Those who did so after losing Sarah did so reluctantly.
LGBTQ rights have been a topic of discussion among activists and in civil society since the Revolution, but the answer has always been “the time isn’t right” or “I will not defend the rights of faggots.” Only feminists groups have stood with us; their rights are also marginalized in civil society and political activity. Mutual marginalization seems to be a catalyst for solidarity. But most political activists believe that LGBTQ rights are a low priority issue that comes after achieving majority rights like social and economic freedom, rights of political prisoners, etc.
Despite the marginalization we have faced, I don’t think we’ll ever stop standing up with them or fighting the military rule in Egypt. But our relation with them has become a part of our alienation in our home country and many of those who “tolerate” our existence within it.
Our relation with our countries have become similar to that with our bodies. We are part of them, but we do not feel like they are ours, and a huge part of us feels trapped inside of it. We develop a relationship of love and hate with it, and sometimes it is just hate. But we cannot just leave our bodies, nor can we change them to something we are entirely content with. I feel the same way about my home country, Egypt. And even after I left, I felt like I could never cut ties with it entirely. I feel like part of it is stuck in me, and like I left part of myself there. I cannot fully fit into a new country, but I fear to return to Egypt.
We can look at our countries like we look at our own bodies in the mirror: we examine them in an attempt to understand how we belong to them. Our feelings toward them are usually “complicated,” but we can’t even reveal those feelings to others. Likewise, our relationship to our countries gets more complicated each day. Most of the queers I know who want to return to their country, for whatever reason, also fear for their bodily and psychological safety.
My relation to Cairo and my birth place is much of the same. On one hand, I want to return and I live on my memories in Cairo streets, and sometimes I start crying when I remember one thing or another. But on the other, I remember how I used to fear being myself anywhere in Cairo, and how I was always worried when I passed by a police checkpoint. I knew well that a ‘police chief’ could frame me up if he wanted even though I did nothing against the law. Every time I returned home when I was in Cairo, I felt destroyed. It didn’t matter how well I rested, because the next day it would hit me even harder.
Dear Sarah, did you know what a home country means after you left? Can you tell us all about that from heaven? Dear Sarah, can you tell us how far we could get if we kept fighting for the rights of those who wish we were dead?
Is a home country its streets, cities and squares? Is it the moments of serenity we found despite the circumstances and to which our souls remain attached, Is it the people, our mothers and siblings, who might hesitate to pray for use when we died if they knew our truth? Or, is it the soldiers who step on our necks with their military boots, suffocating us to death?
Maybe the answer lies in what Mahmoud Darwish said, “What is home? It is longing for death to restore our rights and home. But a home is not a piece of land. It is both a right and a land. You have the right, but they have the land.”