the daughter of those people   yafa

 

In Arabic


Being 'bint el nas' means you are someone's daughter; having family. Belonging to someone and having people who belong to you. For many arabs, that belonging to the family and community is an essential component of cultural identity. For others, especially those born or living in the diaspora, the distance from family and a lack of community bring into sharp relief the ways in which their cultural identity is problematic.

Whether you live in the Middle East, North Africa or the diaspora, to be lesbian, bisexual or transgender is to create distance from your culture, a kind of internal exile or ghurbeh. And you are doing it to yourself, either because of the silences you may choose or need to maintain, or because there are areas of your life in which you need to make that impossible choice between being queer and Arab; your cultural identity is further complicated. And yet, in that distance from your Arab culture you are finding yourself as an individual. You are also, hopefully, moving towards belonging to a lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender community, whether physically or via email and other forms of communication. And in that place you may find yet another expression of yourself as an Arab, however similar or different that is to your previous experience.

For me that bringing together of my Arab, westernised and lesbian selves has been and still is a difficult process, with many pitfalls along the way. I remember a party I had in my second year away from home: I spent hours and hours preparing so many different specialities that I had missed while I was away from home. Hummus, mtabbal1 and pickles of course, but also wara' dawali, kubbeh, sfiha, fatayer sabanekh, hareeseh.2 I felt like I was expressing myself in all that kneading, chopping, and mixing and I was perfectly in control of the situation, something I rarely felt in my life at college in Britain...

There was little pleasure in the party itself, because most of the people were not really my friends (the friend I shared with knew more people), and one idiot said 'great, Israeli food' when he saw the falafel and hummus... And at the end of it all I felt used, even though noone had DONE anything. They had simply eaten the food I prepared and had their party experience and gone home. Now, when I remember all this, I think 'poor me' (maskeeneh). I did not have the confidence tell them about the food, or to have made any friends who might have taken the trouble to talk to me... or even to say to the ones I did know something about what it all meant for me... I was so lonely and unhappy and lost. I think a big part of that dislocation I felt was just that: I was not in my 'natural' place. I did not yet know if I would or could survive in this new alien environment. And yet that bewildered anger was also a part of what made me sure that I needed to work out the awful mess I was making in my life.

Fast forward through many other parties and get-togethers in the intervening years, and you see a kaleidoscope of people and food and music- any number of different combinations of Arab, western, Asian, Afro-Caribbean, queer, straight, women and men. Sometimes the variety and the change is planned more often though it seems to creep up and surprise me with some new insight into who I have become.

I compare myself to my friends who still live at home, 'fil bilad'3, and I do not see that they have a sense of unquestioned comfort in their belonging there. A troop of cousins to shield them from individual experience or expression, backed up by an armoury of aunts and uncles at the ready to reinforce the desired direction should they swerve off at any point. What need is there for immediate family to be heavy or difficult; the whole establishment is geared towards making impossible that self exploration which is at the base of individual identity. Another internal exile, where a woman cannot express her sexual identity to anyone except behind many closed doors and, at times, under condition of mutual blackmail... the adverse conditions are well known to all of us.

But when we look more carefully, something else is going on too. Under and within these pressures women DO build a life which is woman-centred and fulfilling, and they co-exist with the majority culture which denies their existence. The questions of daily life then become centred on maintaining integrity and identity, as well as safety, and ties with the family and wider society; being true to yourself without putting yourself at undue risk. The parallels with life in the diaspora are many. For some women it is also about making links with lesbian communities outside, however difficult it may seem to find common ground at times. For a woman in this situation, bringing together her Arab and lesbian self is much more immediate, but also paradoxically so much more difficult. And to further complicate all of this is the assumption within Arab society that homosexuality is a western construct, and a product of the west's decline. That this assumption flies in the face of the reality of Arab society in the past and present does not make the beliefs less powerful. So the accusation that her sexuality is a sign of westernisation, the implication that she has internalised the ideology of the coloniser and is somehow not properly arab, is always lurking in the background. And yet, clearly, the choices she is making are about reinforcing her arab identity with her lesbian identity.

I think it is in such places where our identities are challenged that they are also forged. It is these areas of belonging / not belonging to the people who make up our community (in its widest sense) and how we each find or make a place where we can be ourselves, which are the focus of this issue of Bint el Nas. It has been a great privilege and a pleasure to work with the contributors to this issue. Each has brought her own experience and world view to bear in her response to the overall theme, and the variety is itself a cause for celebration. So is the sheer talent!

Leila Makoul's journey from small arab-american neighbourhood to the wider world strikes chords for anyone who has had to make difficult choices about who they are and where they belong... and who of us has not? She charts her journey from close knit family to separation and isolation via a powerful and life changing visit to Lebanon. The many strands of her story exemplify the huge array of factors which shape our lives and our sense of self. From world political events and changing technology, to the language we speak and the songs we love, everything around us influences our self-image. The final sections speak of identity being reshaped as a sense of belonging in different worlds is made explicit and owned. Who could imagine at the start of Leila's journey that she would be claimed by her cousin as 'one of her favourite people?'

That issue of claiming is touched on in Mary Salome's poem too. She describes the markers of identity which exclude as well as include; the pain of being shut out of every aspect of culture is palpable. And yet the longing to belong is still strong. It is as strong in Vini Bhansali's memories of the Bombay she left 6 years ago, and in the desperate need of both muslims and hindus to claim the city as their own. Lulu's poem shows a way of creating a sense of belonging, through weaving together the different worlds we inhabit; the child is also the woman who is sexual and who has pain and memories. The power of memories, and the critical moments in which we move towards accommodating them and defining ourselves, is also illustrated in bint George's promise to that special person present at a moment of truth. The power of the defining moment to transform our lives is the theme of Julie Shaffer's magical transformation. The varied threads of experience are there in suhaqiya 69's mrs robinson, and in her reviews of the music which reflects the fluidity of culture.

And that is perhaps the last important point to remember -- our personal culture changes and evolves as we go through life, and in this respect it simply mirrors the processes going on in wider society. So the house is being knocked down and rebuilt at the same time that we are trying to find a comfortable spot to lay out our mattress. Indeed there is cause for celebration in this diversity of response; we are truly finding where we belong, and working out how we belong together. Our house can and will accommodate us all so long as we can keep on talking to our sister builders, and our neighbours.


1. aka baba ghannoush back
2. vine leaves, meat yumminess, savoury pastries, dessert -- the works! back
3. in our land, the arab lands back


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