This essay discusses homophobic violence and suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or, for LGBTQIA+ youth, TrevorLifeline at 866-488-7368.
n June 14th, 2020, I’m a queer, non-binary Egyptian immigrant living in America
for the twentieth year in a lifetime total of thirty-five. There’s a plague going on; police shoot Black people in the street knowing they can; the president is mentally ill and murderous; deaths and infections by Coronavirus worldwide are as classed and racialized as everything. For the month, I’m at an artist residency in the place the most Arabs anywhere in the world outside the SWANA region—driven by the muddle of facts, figures, and feelings motivating any act of migration—have settled: Dearborn, Michigan. I’m staying a short walk away from an enormous warehouse of a supermarket called Dearborn Fresh, where I walk the aisles alone every week more times than anyone needs to, overhearing Arab families engage in grocery-store talk in a fluent mashup of dialect and English: baba, roo7 jeeb some of that shu esmo; la2 yabni, dah, not that one; no—mom said jeeb la koll wa7ad tleateh. The families shop the way every Arab household I know shops: carts full, fruit bought by the crate. There are five different pistachio options in the bulk section, each from a different country.
I know how cliché a thing it is to talk about Arab culture through talking about food; before you know it, I’ll be saying something about saffron. Still, that’s how I’ve decided to begin this story, because that’s where I found out about Sarah Hegazy’s suicide. Walking through aisles of dinner-planning in the diaspora of self- and other exiles; aisles of post–9/11 Arab America taking over hostile streets with nimble, multitudinous Arabics; aisles of families who’d converted the garages of their houses to outside dining rooms with eighteen seats; aisles of jars and tins that’d flown the skies and sailed the seas to satisfy Arab appetites for home. That’s where I was when I found out about Sarah dying after waving the gay flag at a Cairo concert in 2017: Surrounded, for the first time in America in twenty years, by all the things I used to eat as a child.
Even though we all know you should never read the comments, the first thing I do is read the comments. I scroll and scroll through post after post of so much sorrow, post after post of sour contempt. Hate is loquacious. It wasn’t enough that she was dead. This was the part of the funeral where everyone who wanted to got to squat over her exiled corpse and take a dump.
They were prolific, and I, applying my habit of bingeing to poison, devoured the schadenfreude—ate up the posts one by one.
Less than a year later, I’m editing a journal, I Want Sky, that celebrates Sarah Hegazy’s life and the lives of queer SWANA folx. I’d pulled the title from the caption of her final Instagram post, where she told the world, in the most public forum available to her, that she was leaving us for the sky.
Waving the rainbow flag publicly had carried with it a harsh sentence: Sarah uprooted abruptly from her entire life, forced to leave Egypt for asylum following three months of imprisonment, torture, electrocution, sexual assault, and nine days of solitary confinement. Submission after submission, I read other SWANA queers, in their pieces or the cover letters attached, swap places with Sarah, wondering what they’d have done. Many write versions of, When I heard about Sarah Hegazy, I was…, followed by where they were, or what they were doing, or who they were with, or what time of day it was, or what the weather had been.
It’s the way people talk about trauma: fixing the details, painting a picture before horror, blocking their bodies in the frame.
I’ve lived in the same apartment since 2008. It’s rent-stabilized, so I like to joke that I’m gonna Tell-tale Heart it—die in it and leave my heart in the walls, beating. For thirteen years, I’ve been going to the same corner bodega. The owners are Yemeni, keep the place open 24 hours, and close only two days a year, the first day of each eid. They have a grill, fryer, and a large menu, and I’ve ended many an evening buzzed at their counter waiting for grease, more times than I can count. All six of the men who rotate through the counter know about my Cheetos and Twix habit. Two of them, the overnight crew, know I keep erratic hours, don’t sleep well. When I move to the neighborhood, I make sure never to speak Arabic in the store, not to them, not to anyone else, not on the phone, not ever.
I make myself disappear a lot, here in America, around Arabs I don’t know. I don’t look particularly Arab—it wouldn’t be anyone’s first guess.
I know my reasoning is riddled with racist assumptions. Why should I assume that Arabs are homophobic? Why participate in the orientalism bludgeoning the multiplicity of our narratives? The answer—neither good nor satisfying: Because I’m so tired, and don’t have it in me to expose myself. Putting my own people in a racist box in the interest of protecting myself feels like the safest and easiest route. I’d assumed the best before and been stung. So I retreat into a familiar silence, a protective shell.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
The posts insist that—in addition to the immorality and perversion of the lifestyle itself, how it turns nature topsy turvy precipitates the end shakes God’s throne in divine and terrible rage yada yada—what was so wrong about it was, Didn’t she know those years weren’t hers to squander? What then, of God, who’d made her, breathed life into the cold clay of her? How dare she end her life ahead of schedule, dare defy divine design?
I find myself starting to make a mental list of all the things taken from an exile with a history of activism, torture, trauma, and abuse.
While I have Arab friends in New York, our lingua franca is colonized by history and circumstance, by who else is present, by the imperialism and hegemony of English in the global labor market. So, it’s fairly rare that I speak Arabic, and after two decades of underuse, my mother tongue is in a state of daily degradation, language synapses growing fainter, words increasingly thick on my tongue. On calls to my family, I pepper in more and more English, because after so many years of never having occasion to use them, many words simply don’t come. But here in Dearborn, Arabic is everywhere. I speak it in the streets, yell it across backyards at socially distanced dinner parties, read and write it for the project I’m there to work on. After several weeks, I feel both registers coming back, Arabic’s natural diglossia twinned on my tongue. I sit with Arabic text and revivify the complicated grammar lessons of my youth from memory, puzzling out the diacritics that publishers never bother to include in the text, so I know how to inflect the ends of words. I imagine, sometimes, that I can actually feel my brain lighting up with it, synapses long forgotten remembering themselves.
I wonder if Sarah felt the attrition of her mother tongue in the years she lived in asylum in Canada. I consider the irony, that she’d been a writer working in Arabic, critical of the hegemony of English in global queer politics and discourse. I wonder if, like me, she’d started to feel underused words dislodge and disappear from memory and tongue.
Did she wake up every day a stranger in a strange land?
However fluent we are, we are different people in the languages we speak. With Arabic returning to me in Dearborn, I find my humor changed. In Egyptian dialect, I'm a sillier person; the tonal range of my voice is wider and more diverse; my jokes come quicker and meaner. I take advantage of Arabic’s unique matrix morphology, which naturally lends itself not just to punchlines, but to poetry. I ask more rhetorical questions, the way Egyptians do to assume you agree with them before you say you agree with them. Speaking to friends and strangers alike, Arabic’s pleasantries and social graces are a remembered sweetness in my mouth.
I wonder if Sarah missed that. Did she wake up every day a stranger in a strange land? Have conversations in a language she spoke accented, observe how little she sounded like herself, how parts of her personality were untranslatable to English from her truer tongue? I wonder if the first thing Sarah Hegazy missed in exile was herself.
There is knowing that the majority of the people you come from hate you for who you are, and then there is reading and watching a real-time, post-mortem pile-on. I sit there, neurons firing, my brain electric with on-screen hate. I read and read, and after that, it was hard not to be depressed.
Immigrants reading this will already know this about America: the delusion of exceptionalism is in everything. It’s the land of freedom that locks up the most people anywhere in the world, including children. It’s the land of opportunity that breaks people’s spirits and backs. It’s the land of the future that denies and whitewashes its past. It’s the land of global peace-making through economic and political destabilization and bombs. It’s the land of Stonewall and all the queer and trans people harassed and murdered since. It’s the land of women’s rights and legislative battlefields of the womb.
The story is, when Americans are homophobic, it’s an exception. The murders; the bathroom bills; the obsession with regulating what our bodies do, how marry each other, how make children and families—all of that’s an exception to a more just and benign rule.
On the other hand, so the story goes, when Arabs and Muslims are homophobic, it’s because our culture is intrinsically homophobic. It’s not at all because we live in police states where public discourse is closely controlled and monitored, where no forum is safe, no discussion capable of being truly open, making societal shifts slow. No: It’s a barbarity somehow particular to us. And the fact that 29 trans people—that we know of!—have been killed this year in America—and it’s only July!—is just, you know, whatever. An exception having an exceptionally bad day.
I find myself in the same peculiar place familiar to me and other queer SWANA folx: hesitating about writing or saying anything public, knowing our lives and hurts will be repurposed to bolster these narratives, any nuance inevitably ground into native-informant grist. We understand the long and tangled thread of logic tying this the Arabs are and the Muslims are thinking to the rain of bombs that’ll fall on the playgrounds of our first house.
I wonder how soon after seeking asylum Sarah understood this; how soon she learned that from now on, her activism, in English, was some kind of treachery; how soon Western discourse shut her up.
When my uncles see pictures of me with my hair cut short on the internet, they ask my sisters about them. My sisters tell them I donate it to children who’ve lost their hair from cancer, which is something I’ve done a grand total of once.
Thus are the true facts and details of my life elided into respectability. I know that in gatherings of extended family, I’m the one nobody talks about.
I spent years in the closet, a whole lot of them. Years denying the relationships I was in with the women I was with, years seeking, even as I dialed up the masculinity of my presentation to match my personhood, the promise of the safety of deniability. Maybe I could look gay, sure, even be gay, sure…but if nobody had the evidence to prove it, all I was, was gold.
But deniability is its own kind of Midas touch; it turns the bits of your life that you graze with it static. It’s a lot of pictures you don’t take. A lot of posts you ask not to be tagged in. A lot of flirts you don’t flirt, people you don’t approach; a whole community and culture to stay on the fringes of, actively not-embrace. A lot of questions deflected, laughed off, pretend unheard. A whole future to not-imagine, have no way to predict. And so, so much silence. Legions of it.
Had Sarah, too, known about this? Had she been, for perishing year after perishing year, her own life’s most shameful secret?
As they are wont to do, the months turned into years, and, never having spoken to them in Arabic, nor disclosed that I could, I continued being a secret Arab at my own Yemeni bodega. At some point, it felt too late to start; I’d eavesdropped on too many conversations, heard them say too many embarrassing things. Plus, I still couldn’t trust there wouldn’t be some kind of awkward or ugly interaction after the pleasantries and the immigrant small-talk was over and they reconsidered me with eyes gone proprietary for my being a daughter [sic] of the culture.
But one day, a decade of patronage later and three years ago, I walk in with my sister, who’s visiting from Egypt. She wears a hijab, and as soon as we walk in together, the two men working the counter turn their eyes on me, both sets with the same question in them. They listen as my sister speaks to me in Arabic while we iron out ice cream flavor logistics, and I meet neither pair of eyes as I pay. The one handing me back my credit card says goodbye to me in Arabic. I thank him in English, and walk out.
There’s a lot of coldness between us after that.
I’m still in the bargaining stage, even though all is already lost. I think, well, what if it hadn’t been the first summer of COVID-19; what if we weren’t all isolated and in lockdown? What if we weren’t witnessing the United States’ necropolitic in action; George Floyd’s murder, the subsequent suppression of protestors through intimidation and state violence? What if she’d been dating someone, falling in slow or fast love? What if her mother, her last surviving parent, hadn’t died from cancer just after Sarah sought asylum in Canada in 2018, and couldn’t go home?
I think to when my own mother died, toward the end of my senior year of college in America, which I’d left Egypt to attend, leaving her to endure a slow, painful cancer death in Egypt. She died in 2005, and I am still devastated by the loss every day I think of it, which is every day, a haunting. And I’d got to see my mother before she passed away. I’d abandoned my finals, got on a plane and spent three days with her before her hasty burial, though proximity to death had already made my mother mute. Unbeknownst to me, the last time I’d ever hear her voice was already come and gone. Her death left me barking in the night by the side of her grave.
Unlike Sarah, I hadn’t been wrenched from my mother by state violence; I’d left looking for the future. But despite that, and despite the fact that I’d laid hands alongside all my siblings on the touchstone of our birth, despite having been held in my family’s bosom to survive the dead-chested days after the loss, the reality that my mother is gone forever and always is still unfathomable to me every day I wake.
What if Sarah'd been able to spend her mother’s final days with her, got to say a final goodbye, to attend the burial, to have rituals she understood to carry out with people she loved? Could Sarah sleep, knowing there’d been an apartment full of people dressed in mourning black gathered somewhere in Cairo, sipping Turkish coffee brewed unsweetened for the occasion; a room full of people that had space in it for her sorrow too, if only she could’ve been in it?
There’s no real way of knowing. Maybe she had attended the funeral. Maybe on FaceTime, or Zoom.
Around the time of Sarah’s death, I’m having tough conversations with my family about how I’ve been asked to make myself invisible, the closets I’ve been forced back into. “Conversation” here meaning calls I take walking outside because I can’t physically sit still in them without feeling trapped.
I cry, they say horrible things they’re too homophobic to even register as horrible things. They are confused: Hadn’t they accepted me? By which they mean: Don’t they tolerate my existence? I’d not been excommunicated; what else could I possibly want? My reply—that exchanging my silence about who I am for their silence about who I am doesn’t change things—doesn’t seem to translate, no matter how I phrase it. You’re ashamed of me, I say. No, we’re not, they say. Then why won’t you tell anyone about what I am, I say. Why do you ask me to lie to our uncles, to your husbands, to your children? They say, And why would we want to go around talking about a thing like that?, and then we hang up.
I wonder if Sarah had a cache of conversations similar to this one that she’d been carrying around exile in the vault of her chest; whether she, too, had a favorite uncle whose calls and texts and emails she’d ignored for years because it was easier this way, easier to break off ties before they could hurt you.
I don’t want to stage my finally coming out as some kind of triumph. I don’t buy into, nor want to legitimize, any doctrine suggesting that staying in the closet is some kind of failure, or shaming the folx who seek its protection, or who simply wish not to participate in this system of categorizing people by whom they fuck. So this isn’t that; I’m simply describing what happened, what was true, or felt true, for me. Nothing had really changed in my calculus of relative and perceived safety when I did actually come out; I simply couldn’t do the closet anymore. I am untakebackably gay all over the internet, genderqueer in my presentation year-round.
What that means is I no longer visit Egypt, tired of navigating its streets looking like a target, exhausted by a majority of my life spent erasing myself. Unable to meet the need to lengthen my hair before a visit, untuck my shirts, wear femme-er jewelry to offset the rest, the last time I visited was seven years ago. My family comes to see me here instead; though, thanks to the theft of all of 2020 by COVID-19, it’s been a couple of years since the last visit. My twin and I haven’t been in the same room for seven years; we have gray in our hair where, last we saw each other, there was none.
There’s not a place to go to reclaim all the things lost, the most vanishing of which being, as always, time.
I’ll be seeing him this summer for the first time in those seven, where he now lives in the UK, and intend, finally, in person, to come out.
It’s not that he doesn’t know. It’s that it’s never been said. And I'm done chewing the gristle of unspoken truths. I want my family to be a mirror, an externality where I can look and, without distortion, see myself.
I’m not naive enough to think there will be pride there. Not now, not for a long time, perhaps not ever. Or that what pride there is in them exists in silos, and my sexuality, gender, and lifestyle don’t fit in that particular warehouse. There’s not going to be a unicorn happy ending, and I won’t need to ignore my favorite uncle’s text messages next Ramadan, because after so many years of no replies, he’s stopped sending them. All I have, all I control, is the choice to stop participating in my own erasure, to let go of the deniability by which I die a hundred ways every day.
There’s not a place to go to reclaim all the things lost, the most vanishing of which being, as always, time. There’s just the imperative to keep getting up, to find sources of strength and community, and keep visiting them. After cutting myself off preemptively from so many people, after seeing monsters where there were only windmills, I’m ready to start looking for those sources closer, literally and figuratively, to home.
I don’t go into the bodega a few weeks ago intending to speak Arabic, just wanting some snacks. The morning-to-afternoon guy is there and says صباح الخير to me in greeting; he’ll do this sometimes, occasionally break our don’t-ask-don’t-tell pattern and address me in Arabic, a test.
Without thinking about it, I reply صباح النّور, wishing him a morning full of light. He’s been my neighbor for thirteen years; for thirteen years I’ve been denying him and myself the intimacy of our common language, though I’d watched him grow older with his sons. He asks me if I speak Arabic, knowing the answer, and I say yes, I’m Egyptian, and his smile is wide.
It happens to be the day before eid, and after fasting from sun up til sun down for a month, it’s the first day Muslims observing Ramadan are back to eating and drinking again during the day. I say كلّ سنة وإنت طيّب for the occasion, and ask what he’s eating later. He tells me he’s having Yemeni sambousak, triangles of phyllo pastry stuffed and deep fried with meat and nuts. He reaches for a Tupperware container and starts to open it, asking me if I’d like to try one. I engage in Arab politesse, and decline, and decline again, then regret it when he replaces the lid—I’d intended to accept on the third.
I ask him, thirteen years late, his name, and he tells me it’s Muhammad. He asks me mine in Arabic, a language where every noun and verb and adjective are conjugated for gender, and uses the plural “they.” I know he’s using it to create some formality and distance between us, me being a woman [sic], and him being a man, but I decide it’s a day when multiple things can all be true, and translate it to mean he’s mirroring how I wish to be seen in the world; that after thirteen years of seeing my face, he knew or sensed something about me, was speaking to me in my pronoun. I tell him mine, and he responds in Arabic’s social graces, wishing that my name live long. I thank him, wish him a happy eid, an extravagant meal, a healthy appetite. He bags my purchases, a pint of half & half, some seltzer waters, and a box of bodega baklava. As I leave, I call out, سلامه عليكم. Muhammad grabs a second box of baklava and holds it out. For you, for eid, for free, he says, كل سنة وأنتم سالمين.
The next day, their storefront is closed, as I knew it would be. It is a small, insignificant detail, but still a way I knew them; knew they’d be spending it with their families, this first day of eid.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or TrevorLifeline at 866-488-7368.