This Arab is Queer: Unheld Conversations
In the diaspora, unheld conversations about sexuality are tangled up with other forms of unutterable discourse about identity. I’m one of those diasporic Arabs who enjoys a special kind of privilege from the benefits of these overlapping silences, something that produces, as it does with all privileged people, a miasma of guilt and self-doubt, a nauseating, tedious, third-culture self-analysis that is in danger of resulting in heavy-handed poetry about pomegranate seeds. The particularly grotesque identity twist is found where straight passing meets white passing. As a pale and unaccented Palestinian living in the UK, I’ve had inside access to spaces where it has been a savage pleasure to rip off the cloak and challenge people on their unfiltered racism and homophobia. I’ve also sat, sweating in that cloak, and shamefully said nothing. Nothing.
Silence is an incomplete metaphor. It can’t capture frustration and complicity, its function as retreat and a burrow. It holds a place for concealment, secrecy and deception. It holds a place for reverence. Living with a profound layer of silence wedged between yourself and your family can be such a source of sorrow, even when it is necessary.
In Arabic, designations for family members are precise. There’s vocabulary to describe a nephew on your mother’s side, in a way that English doesn’t permit. And those boxes on the family tree assign roles that serve social functions, functions that come with certain obligations. To wish to be known beyond the category of sister, uncle, niece, is to insist on a level of intimacy that rattles the containment of the box. My role as the eldest daughter of an Arab family carries with it duties and responsibilities that do not allow space to articulate individual desires, never mind ‘transgressive’ ones.
''Strategic silence provides a protection and a defence for many queer Arabs. But the cost of that barrier is to accept that those closest to you do not really know you, and that feels especially alienating when the love-language of your culture is intrusion.''
Eldest daughters of Arab families are expected to uncomplainingly contain the emotional needs of others, and quietly manage the practical labour of caretaking. It requires being a vessel into which responsibilities are poured; you must become a resting place for squabbles, disappointments and frustrations for both the older generations and younger relatives. You must also be a bridge between these generations, interpreting, shielding, arbitrating and negotiating. You must not take up space, make demands, need ministration. The eldest daughters of Arab families are expected to shelve our whims, keep our personalities confined so as to not use up emotional resources needed elsewhere. We are not supposed to be unusual, unexpected. It is a role expected to be performed in silence.
Strategic silence provides a protection and a defence for many queer Arabs. But the cost of that barrier is to accept that those closest to you do not really know you, and that feels especially alienating when the love-language of your culture is intrusion. It means leaving unshared all the messy, low-level melodrama of relationships, friendship fallouts, disappointments, celebrations, milestones, anniversaries. It means withholding the joyous ways you are reflected in your chosen and found family.
This causes a particular kind of compartmentalisation, a simultaneous duplicitousness. It forces you to shuffle between your selves, only revealing part of your interiority at one time. It is living as a zoetrope, flickers of selfhood in a constantly moving drum. And to reconcile both Arabness and queerness carries with it enculturated resistance that, to feel secure, you must have the boundaries around these different selves locked down. It is difficult to break out of this compartmentalisation in a way that doesn’t feel profoundly unsafe. And this means living in a pattern of self-censorship and evasion.
As a child, we lived close to a silent convent, and I heard the bells calling the nuns to prayer in the morning. It mesmerised me: the idea of a community of women, living without words, in the centre of London. It seemed so ethereal, so magical, that I could get off the bus from the big Sainsbury’s and stand outside a cloistered community of silent women. The sheer otherworldliness of it enchanted me, and I buried the idea away to fictionalise later. My novel relied on the sisters’ silence as a queer love story unfolded in their midst; perhaps it did reflect something I’d unintentionally expressed. Maybe my context for understanding queer love was in a wider frame of avoidance.
Avoidance is a learned tactic; it comes from experience. We hone it over time, we create grooves to fall into, which hold us in place to prevent collision. Most of the Arab families I know are positively enthusiastic about emotional squabbles, operatic altercations, overblown, multi-coloured disagreements with labyrinthine sub-plots. But true confrontation has consequences; it exposes and reveals. Since risks of those revelations often outweigh the rewards, silence is simpler, until it becomes habitual.
I have a memory of my mother, standing at the playground gates at the end of the school day. I was about ten and in my final year of primary school. Even through the window, I could see her face was stormy, and I dawdled in the corridor, sensing danger. Then I spotted it: there, in her hands, was my diary. It was one of those flimsy lock-and-key concoctions, a device much coveted among primary-school girls in the 1990s. It promised a loyal confidante, a reliable, discreet companion who would faithfully preserve my youthful hopes and dreams. That day, looking at the smashed lock mechanism in my mother’s grip, I recalled with horror and shame, the secrets I had spelled so poorly within: a maths test I’d cheated on, a scarf that I’d stolen from the lost-property box. Wielding the diary, my mother marched to the supervising teacher, and demanded that I confess my latent crimes on the spot, or she would read aloud from the diary and expose me as a criminal. Dutifully, I confessed. It was a tearful walk home.
As an adult, I can recognise this as an unnecessarily public moment of parental theatre. It was intrusive in a way that rendered me paranoid for many years: I never kept a diary again. But I also recognise the determined interest it took to smash through the lock on a book of my secrets. The same determination it now takes to look away.
Anbara Salam is a Palestinian-Lebanese-Scottish writer. She is the author of Things Bright and Beautiful (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2018) and Belladonna (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2020).
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