By RAED RAFEI
In the living room of my parents’ home in Tripoli, Lebanon, an elaborate family tree is displayed in a golden frame. It is a constant reminder of a fatalistic vision of life’s ultimate purpose: reproduction. Males are depicted as branches; females as leaves. The thriving of the tree relies on branches like mine. A single man who bears no new branches or leaves could condemn an entire lineage to an end.
I would rather imagine myself as an adventitious root or a lateral shoot in a rhizomatic network of multidirectional connections.
As leaves, my two sisters are bitterly expected to fall off and contribute to the growth of other trees once they get married. But a branch is an integral part of the whole. Its separation from the core can only happen as a result of a violent act of severance. Most of my life, I have feared that coming out as a gay man would be akin to the amputation of my branch from the tree. Whenever I was repeatedly and insistently asked why I was not married, I thought of my silence as a form of Taqqiya—in Islam, a precautionary dissimulation or denial of one’s religious belief and practice in the face of persecution.
I wonder whether coming out (with its imposing baggage of western histories, logics, and ideals) can be a silent act that needs no words, concepts, or epistemologies. Rather than a re-enactment of an emotional scene of fury and denial ingested from a mainstream gay movie, it would just be an intense exchange of gazes between me and my parents. The silence of the moment would be so resounding that it would freeze all movement, and even time itself. My parents would grasp, without any need for reasoning, who I am, with all the complexities and layering of what being is, and we would move on.
On June 14, Arab queers grieved the death of Sarah Higazi. Though I’d never met her, I was deeply saddened when I heard she had taken her own life. A queer Egyptian communist living in exile in Toronto, Sarah had paid a heavy price for the seemingly simple gesture of raising a rainbow flag during a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo in 2017. Unlike her, I’ve never been arrested, tortured, or sexually assaulted. But like many gay, lesbian and transgender people all over the Arab region, I’ve lived most of my life with the fear of meeting a similar fate whenever I was stopped by a policeman or kissed a guy, even in the privacy of my own home.
I could have been Sarah. Reading the plethora of insensitive comments pouring out of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world in response to her passing, I compulsively spoke out against bigotry and hatred in a burst of emotional replies.
Faced with Sarah’s tragic fate, I questioned the price of enduring silence beyond my small personal drama. Can such silence withstand the layers of oppression, imminent torture and assault, the imminent danger around me? If my silence is a sphere that protects and preserves me as an individual, what are its physical limits, what is its reach? Does it withstand shocks? Is it penetrable? Can it be punctured? What happens to our collective bubbles of silence? Do they rub against each other, merge, or cancel each other out?
June 2015. New York. My student visa is about to expire. The US Supreme Court has just legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and I join the jubilant crowds celebrating this historic moment at the Stonewall monument. My friend who immigrated with his family as a teenager from Pakistan, fleeing political persecution, can finally get a green card for being married to another man. I feel a sense of triumph and universality. The years I spent in gay-friendly metropoles helped me repress the silence I’d carried in me from my introverted teenage years and raise an assertive voice. In this moment, I forget how far I have had to reside from this now ultra-gentrified Manhattan neighborhood to be able to live in this city as a student on scholarship. I forget avoiding the faces of the homeless persons I came across on my way from the subway. This is decidedly a significant win for the LGBT community and I am part of that family.
A young, muscled white man dances cheerfully with his friends. I notice the words, Happy Few, on his T-shirt. Is this a reference to the famous line from Shakespeare: “we few, we happy few,” when King Henry inspires his soldiers by telling them they are few in number but great in spirit? Who are the “happy few” today? Am I one of them?
Suddenly, I am caught off guard by a sense of alienation. In a few days, I will have to pack my bags and return to Lebanon, where a criminal law condemns the perpetrators of homosexual acts deemed unnatural to up to one year in prison.
I have rehearsed many times in my head the narrative of the gay asylum seeker fearing for his life in his violent Muslim surroundings, but I was never able to appropriate that narrative. In spite of the legal realities, condemning my parents and an entire society as homophobic felt crushingly reductive, a pact with the devil. I would gain a semblance of personal freedom for the price of repudiating the multi-layered culture that molded and nurtured my selfhood. Maybe I lacked the will or audacity to endure the insurmountable loss that I thought would result from cutting ties with my homeland.
And then, with my approaching return, came the narratives out of the Arab world of collective struggle and will, of resistance and imagination, of being part of something bigger. I mused on the pride of becoming publicly vocal, of joining the many brave local queer activists in Lebanon relentlessly fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised and marginalized, and dreaming of a better nation. But my desire for home was really a cluster of heightened affects: the excitement of being surrounded by the warmth of my friends and family, of savoring a man’ouchet za’atar in the morning, of walking aimlessly along the corniche and staring at the sea for hours without purpose.
Sarah Hegazi had little choice but to escape to a western country. The realities for queer individuals in the Arab region can vary widely and significantly depending on different factors: geographical location, physical appearance, social status, and many others. And they are not an exception in the long list of people routinely thrown in the notorious jails of Arab police states: political dissidents, intellectuals, activists, artists, etc. I can’t pretend to know the distressing circumstances that led Sarah to commit suicide even though she had escaped prosecution and been granted asylum in Canada, but I have experienced glimpses of the unbearable loneliness one feels in exile.
It is a hot, humid summer day in Tripoli al-Fayhaa (Lebanon’s second-largest city, known once for the scent of orange blossoms emanating from its groves). The make-up is melting off my face. I am becoming increasingly aware of its heaviness. I must be 7 or 8. I am in the living room of Anissa (Arabic for Miss) Zeina, the head-scarfed, gentle woman my parents used to send me to every Saturday for religion classes. They wanted to compensate for the secular education I received at the Lycée Français and the classical piano lessons I took with Madame Alice, an older Armenian Lebanese lady with short dyed blond hair and an elongated figure.
I remember gripping Koranic stories about valiant prophets and ancestral sandy landscapes that I had never known in my childhood.
And then, there was the costume party that Anissa Zeina threw to entertain us.
It is hard for me now to remember why I wanted to dress up as a clown for the party. I’ve always been fascinated by my mother’s intricate hairdos, her beautiful layered dresses and her colorful make-up. Maybe I secretly needed an excuse to put on some of her bright, red lipstick. As a child, many of my whimsical impulses were spurned as inappropriate behavior. I remember frowns and rebukes from my parents every time I played with a Barbie doll, performed a belly dance, sat with one leg crossed over the other, or spoke with a “feminine” tone and affected “feminine” gestures.
I eventually understood that if I looked and acted as a boy, I could reap the privileges afforded to me in this male-dominated culture. Over the years, the grinding social machine of gender disciplining decidedly taught me to tame and repress unacceptable desires, or to simply hide them under a cloak of silence.
Many departures and returns later, I am an adult, a visitor in Tripoli, and it’s spring. I close my eyes to fully take in the scent of orange blossoms. The central public garden feels like a delightful refuge after a day of haggling with shop owners in the narrow streets of the souk. The garden has the infamous reputation of being a gay cruising area at night. As a teenager in the early 90s, I often heard If you visit Tripoli, don’t drop a coin—the sort of derogatory joke that still circulates among the local men. Some say that the villagers around Tripoli traditionally regarded city men as soft with loose morals. Rather than the overt, public displays called for in a western sense of homosexuality, here I feel the muted ambiguity of queerness—a non-normative way of envisioning the world, of enacting oneself in it, of finding one’s bearings or orientation. I discern it in a small gesture, a furtive look, an ambivalent smile.
On a typical work day, the garden is a space where people can step out of a regimented time conceived along expectations of productivity. Some people simply pass by or through the garden. Others appropriate a space for themselves in it. They sit on a bench, or lean on a tree, or rest on the edge of the central fountain. Many unemployed people spend hours in the park seemingly doing nothing. They linger, loiter, idle, wait. They mark time, waste time, and kill time.
With the collapse of the Lebanese currency in recent months and an economy worsening every day, more and more people are unable to provide food to their families. Some of my highly educated friends have lost their jobs and had to leave their rented flats in Beirut and return to live with their parents in their cramped childhood bedrooms. In several months, this already dreadful situation will be exacerbated when, on August 4, a devastating explosion rocks the capital, resulting in at least 190 deaths, 6,500 injuries, US$10–15 billion in property damage, an estimated 300,000 people left homeless, and an entire country in total despair.
Wandering in my birth town leaves a taste of bitterness, that of the lingering memories of bullies pushing me around for not being boyish enough and of the looming shame of being discovered. But there is also a disarming mystery to this ordered little world that draws me towards it. I see it in the face of an old man gleaning the future with a deck of cards in the shade of a tree, or in the gesture of a merchant in the old souk brushing outmoded fur coats tirelessly, or the vagabond in the public garden smoking with a long cigarette holder decorated with flowers.
After passing by many palimpsestic walls, ancient structures and ruins imbued with memories of past glory and recurrent disappointments, I feel a deep connection with the city itself. We are sealed by our failures: my biological and ethical failure as a son to carry the family name and Tripoli’s failure to offer its people an economically viable future.
June 2020. San Francisco. I am residing in the United States again as a PhD student. After months of lockdown and a sweeping wave of protests for the dignity of Black lives, Pride felt different this year, more critical, more inclusive. The slogan “White Silence Equals White Consent” seemed to make an impact. Fed-up with the shallow co-optation of LGBT rights by large corporations, many voices insisted that the queer movement can only truly matter when it stands against all forms of systemic injustice.
Thousands of miles from here in Cairo or Beirut, there weren’t any Pride parades. But many Arab queers have not been silent. I sense that the urgency of the moment is not one of individual emancipation but is rather a collective defense against the unending reproduction of unfair practices and systems. Activists like Sarah have been at the forefront of struggles for social justice. In Lebanon, since a revolution against the sectarian political system started in October last year, queer and feminist activists have helped shape the movement’s vision by calling in the same breath for an end to corruption, patriarchy, and neo-liberal policies.
Even now, despite violent repression by authorities and the recent heart-wrenching explosion in Beirut, angry calls for radical change to an entire system dominated by a masculinist, power-hungry culture, rotten to its core, have not subsided. Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz wrote: “Queerness is essentially about a rejection of the here and now and insistence on potentiality and concrete possibility for another world.” I fantasize that another future for Arab queers is possible. It is not a ceremonial future marked with annual parades but, as Muñoz said, “an ideality… The warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality… A mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.”
Raed Rafei is a Lebanese filmmaker, researcher, and multi-media journalist. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His documentary film, Here I am … Here you Are, was streamed online in June 2020 by the Arab American National Museum.
Photos by Raed Rafei and Corine Shawi.