Growing the prism inside: An exploration of queer Arab identity
What does it mean to have pride in your identity, when your identity is multifaceted?
Pride is not something that you are born with, it’s something that you learn. For some, this learning comes at an early age. Parents who are supportive and constructive know to build up their children’s pride young, so they’re proud of who they are and where they come from.
"Our identity is so tied up with our family, that the idea of coming out is terrifying because of the next-level fear we have of how they would react"
In Arab and West Asian communities, however, the pride that’s taught almost always focuses solely on nationality, race, ethnicity or religion whilst pride in their queerness is left to be self-taught, years later.
Children are taught to pray, they’re taught about their ancestry and where their family comes from. They’re told to be proud of the pigment of their skin, and the faith they are raised in. And as they grow older, hopefully, one day they will at least have pride in some parts of themselves.
For a lot of queer Arabs, though, a true sense of pride in yourself comes at a much later age – because underneath the pigment of their skin are colours of a rainbow that naturally dull at the mention of a “traditional” lifestyle, one where these kids are expected to marry the opposite gender and have kids to carry on the family name.
"Underneath the pigment of their skin are colours of a rainbow that naturally dull at the mention of a 'traditional' lifestyle, one where these kids are expected to marry the opposite gender and have kids to carry on the family name"
Elias Jahshan, author of the newly released anthology This Arab Is Queer, talks about these expectations: “Family is the most important thing in the world for us, it’s drummed into our psyche from a very young age and it’s extremely hard for us to divorce from it completely,” he explains.
“Our identity is so tied up with our family, that the idea of coming out is terrifying because of the next-level fear we have of how they would react. And the fear of the unknown of what would happen to us, what meaning our lives would hold if our families don’t accept us. Or worse yet, reject us.”
So, what do we do then, to brighten up the prism behind our pigment? We explore.
When filmmaker and storyteller, Rolla Selbak, was unfortunately kicked out of her house after coming out to her family, she found the perfect magnifying glass to help her focus on the rainbow inside her: The city of San Francisco.
“..It was the city that saved me,” she says. “After having my lowest point ever while there, I ended up growing and finding my community and my chosen family. Coming out ended up being one of the best things I did in my life.”
Once Rolla was freed from the expectations and judgements of her family that didn’t understand her at the time, it makes sense that coming out was so good for her.
"Coming out ended up being one of the best things I did in my life"
All too often, queer Arabs are expected to have pride in the things they were raised by outwardly and not the things inside of them.
Like many cultures, Arab identities are heavily affected by judgment and gossip from the community. I know this from personal experience, by having family members judge me for what I wear or how I act.
To this day, one of my closest family members refuses to let anyone know how sick she is or how much pain she’s in because she doesn’t want to be seen as old, frail or fragile – even if pretending that she’s not is detrimental to her health. That is the power that judgment has on our community, and on our psyches.
And this judgment doesn’t just stem from our own communities, but from the communities, we surround ourselves with.
As Arabs living in a post-9/11 world, the pride that we were raised on and the one aspect of ourselves that our family members so heavily supported became the same part that we were told to have shame in.
Shadie Chahine, a project manager based in the UK, touches on this a bit, telling The New Arab, “I had a hard time growing up Arab, due to severe bullying in the wake of the twin towers attack in 2001. I was in an all-white boys' school at the time and being the only visible Arab person, it led to a hard childhood.”
Of course, it did. For many of us, we were in our formative years. I was called Osama Bin Laden in the school yard, while Rolla dealt with microaggressions from teachers, airport security agents, and even a home visit by the FBI.
But for Rolla, these microaggressions and intimidations did not waver her pride. “It never shook my identity,” she explains. “It just made me realise how much work we still need to do to be free and to be seen as worthy of being part of this world.”
Feeling worthy is so important to gaining pride in all your identities, which is why it’s so critical that we make human connections that help us feel seen.
"We found support in family members (chosen or genetic) and friends, people who saw the rainbow inside of us and welcomed us because they saw the beauty of it"
Like many queer people of any identity, as Arabs, we found those connections when we got older. We found support in family members (chosen or genetic) and friends, people who saw the rainbow inside of us and welcomed us because they saw the beauty of it.
Designer, Saeed Kayyani, couldn’t help but rave about the people in their life that helped them feel seen, telling The New Arab, “one of my closest friends, an Egyptian woman named Yasmine, immediately embraced me and my first boyfriend when she became aware of who I really was. Not only was she incredibly supportive, but she also went out of her way to defend the both of us at every turn.”
That’s really all it takes – finding support and making sure that we’re seen not by any one facet of our identity, but by all of them. As we find our communities and are able to explore more of the identities that make us who we are, the foundations of belonging finally begin to set, and upon building those foundations we create a home for the people that we love and a place to hang our pride flags.
So, while being a queer Arab often starts off as complex and confusing, in the end, it makes us even stronger versions of ourselves than if we’d only aligned with one of those identities.
To any of our young readers growing up queer and Arab, people who may be struggling to let the prism inside of them truly glow, our interviewees have some advice:
“You are beautiful, and you inspire me everyday, especially queer Arabs that are living in Arab countries. Change is coming. If you can afford to, be your true self, let yourself glow, and others will follow. And if you can't, just know that we're here for you, before and after you shine your light on the world.”
“It's okay to trust other people. Not only will you find help and support in the most unexpected places, but many people in your life will pleasantly surprise you. Accept their support and positivity because you are worthy, you are valid, and you deserve all the support and happiness in the world. It may not look like it, but I promise, things are slowly getting better for us everyday.”
“Trust and believe in yourself, and you have more supporters than you think.”
“‘Coming out’ is arguably a Western concept. It’s a seemingly one-size-fits-all approach that obviously doesn’t work for everyone. So don’t ever feel like you have to do it. How you live your life is your business and your business only. Don’t ever feel like you have to prove yourself or explain yourself to anyone. Don’t ever let people take pity on you either. Be who you are, celebrate every facet of your identity how you see fit. Because it’s a gift. And If you do embark on a coming out journey – and I say journey because it’s always constant, it’s never ending – just make sure you look out for yourself. Your safety is of utmost importance.”
From all of us to you, we wish you a happy Pride.
Tariq Raouf is a Palestinian-American Muslim writer, based in Seattle. You can follow them on their journey of rediscovering their roots with their newsletter, Finding Palestine
Follow them on Twitter: @tariq_raouf