a coming out story   leila makoul


Prodigal Son

"We can live wherever we are and yet still maintain our beliefs. I think that once you let in a foreign element to interfere with one's own belief; that's when things start to go wrong."
-- quote from Baladna, a forum on Jordan-online.com



I was born in the US to a first generation Syrian man and an American woman. My mother cooked mostly arabic food. I never knew her favorite meal until I was nearly 45 -- it was never a part of our life except for her infamous desserts. We lived in an arab neighborhood, among the Jews who helped sponsor my grandfather in this country, among the Ukrainians who shared our same Orthodox calendar. But it was not a melting pot. My family, particularly my grandparents as the first family immigrants, never meant to trade cultural values and ethics for the chance of a better life if it meant assimilation. My grandparents had fled Ottoman rule; I simply did not understand that immigration was never about individual freedom and independence. I was a "half-breed", the scourge of our culture. My struggle to be arab in the face of this status ended when I chose to honor my love for women.


"In Arab mixed marriages the rate of success is not so good because of our society, it will not accept, both communities, will not accept and will not help the marriage to succeed. The odds are too many."
-- quote from Baladna, a forum on Jordan-online.com

  We lived among my father's family. I was discouraged from relating to americans. It was an immoral society that lacked a sense of family, responsibility, hospitality and passion. It was uncomfortable to be with americans; we had a different sense of personal boundaries. I didn't know how to act in non-arab households and my normal voice volume boomed in their too quiet homes.

"I don't see a problem in mixed marriages from different faiths. I do however believe that marrying a person from the same culture (regardless of faith) may bring more happiness to both overall. I do believe that similar language, culture, music, food, etc play a major role in determining the extent of happiness."
-- quote from Baladna, a forum on Jordan-online.com
"the extent of happiness" -- or misery. (LM)

  We rarely saw my mother's family although they lived just six blocks outside our neighborhood. She took my father's religion, learned to cook his food, participated in fulfilling his family role -- but she did not speak arabic which was not only the language of my father's family, but also of the neighborhood. It was what the women spoke across the wash lines, on the front porch, and in the local stores. However, my father spoke only english in our home, where he allowed my mother to reign. I expressed my solidarity with my mother by only ever speaking english.

"Everyone will suffer, the individuals involved and eventually their children."
-- quote from Baladna, a forum on Jordan-online.com

 

I look at pictures taken during my youth and am surprised at my rounder lighter skinned face peering out among the dark-skinned, dark-haired family. How could my grandmother not wonder what happened to her brood to have raised such a mutt! And one that played football!

Still I was one of the many cousins, and we were a close family. Every Sunday we all got together, even those who had moved out of the neighborhood. And those of us who stayed in the neighborhood played mostly with each other or other arabs who, we were assured, were related to us in some way. We shared in the animosity towards those driving through our neighborhood pointing fingers at us. Nonetheless, it was clear that some cousins were more valued by the adults than others. My cousins began marrying -- several female half-breeds, intentionally or unintentionally, reinforced their arab identity by marrying arab men. I was not interested in men.

I began to claim my arab identity in other ways -- to make clear my choice to be arab. I became a regional officer in the Syrian Orthodox Youth Organization making ties with other arab communities. I taught Sunday School -- my commitment to our children. Did it make me any more arab? Was my US-born father arab, or was he arab-american? And what did that make me? I was a half-breed. Was I also arab-american or a half-breed-arab-american? When I left my neighborhood, I was known to outsiders as arab. When I was home, I only half-belonged as made clear by the not very well concealed whisperings in arabic while people tried to understand my presence among them.

My eldest female cousin began to become estranged from the family, avoiding discussions of an arranged marriage. She went to school despite family protests and was eventually declared dead by the eldest male cousin. She revealed to me that her father had raped her and that she suspected she wasn't the only victim. She graduated from college and on to a new life teaching outside the US for many years, never to return to our hometown. She was a role model for me. She gave me the conviction that I could leave and survive by pursuing an alternate path -- but at the cost of losing family.

We were taught from an early age that we could never live without the family and therefore had to comply with the rules to maintain our lifeline within this corrupt american society so lacking in commitment to one another. I loved my culture and my family. I didn't need to believe everything beyond it was corrupt to instill commitment. Instead of ensuring that we conformed to their rigid cultural norms, I wish the family had felt that the goal was to support our growth in reaching our full potential. After all wasn't it an arab who wrote: "your children are not your children..." Or was Gibran, an arab immigrant himself, simply speaking to the same struggles I was facing?

Inspired by my cousin, I thought that maybe by getting an education I could demonstrate my worthiness to be held close by my family, or to at least gain respect despite my half-breed status. Cousins supported me; one cousin and her husband paid some of my tuition and another took me to school.

Driven by the need to find my individual identity, I sought to widen my understanding of our arab culture here and overseas. I learned how isolated our US community had been until the '56 war when a new wave of arab immigration began. I learned Um Kulthoum was not the only beloved female voice! And there was modern arabic music! But most important, l learned that while many of the new arab immigrants found my inability to speak arabic disconcerting, they did not call me a half-breed, at least not to my face. They seemed to accept me as family, even doted over me as much as any of the other cousins. It was this acceptance that made me finally go back to "the old country." What a misnomer! My stagnant family was the old country. Perhaps change was only allowed on the soil of our ancestors to ensure it remained authentically arab!

I went to Lebanon to understand myself. I had always lived uncomfortably as a "half-breed" and I wanted to explore the spiritual place in me which I thought was the essence of my arab identity. I felt that my sense of integrity along with my strength in science and math were part of my arab identity and heritage. But throughout my life, the arab culture had been presented as mostly rules; I needed to know how much of this was due to the fear of assimilation. I needed to understand whether there was an arab context for me.

In Lebanon, I learned more about the depth of our culture. I particularly remember discussions of poetry, the attempts to translate the imagery and passion, and how lacking english was in providing the language. It furthered my sadness in not having learned arabic. The discussions of culture and underlying traditions at the heart of beliefs brought a deeper appreciation for my heritage. But for me there was still choice, I still needed to determine for myself what I believed and what course I would follow.


Dear Hanan,

I feel compelled to finally speak to the silence of many years. The pain of having you torn from me has stayed with me. Being told that I was never to contact you nor you me was humiliating and inconceivable to me- as if it were nasty or something evil when it was just warm and caring - but I felt I had to comply so as to not cause trouble for you. I also do not know what was said to you about me - besides the concerns for our friendship. The things that were said to me in Lebanon concerning me and my family and my involvement with other people were truly devastating to me including the lack of concern that I was nearly raped in Cyprus - I was blamed. I could not believe that my own cousin could think and believe those things about me - and disbelieve my denials - so much so that I have not spoken to Meriam for nearly 25 years!....


  I was indeed tainted by the west and of mixed blood. Fearing the shame to my family, and myself, I separated myself as was expected of me. My own arab identity became buried when I chose to express and act on my love for women.

...And your affections for me were truly cherished - and reciprocal. I have been pained by the thoughts over the years of how I made trouble for you - and for that I am truly sorry. I am also pained that I could never come to you when you came to this country and at least visit with you in your new family home just doors away from my parents. It is true that many years later I came out as a gay woman. It was hard for me for many reasons - the stigma on my family of course and the possibility that Meriam could say she was right to keep you from me - and that you would perceive it as a betrayal to you as if it were my intent with you! I also had to separate from my own family to become comfortable with myself and then let them become comfortable with me. I had lived with the possibility of my being gay since I was a child and knew I was struggling with my feelings for you. In fact, given the depth of my pain now - I can't help but wonder if perhaps it meant more than friendship to me (I hope this does not offend you) - I can't really say since I was so young-so I won't deny. But I can say that it was not my intent and I did not and do not want more than your friendship. I desired and enjoyed your friendship first and foremost. I did not want to lose it much less have it taken away-I wish we had the opportunity to end the friendship naturally or to simply lose touch - rather than this rubble of shame as there is now....

 

I left my family, choosing assimilation over the shame and the rejection by my culture -- but I took with me a never-ending discomfort with being where I do not feel known. Pleased with my freedom, I was nonetheless uncomfortable in the aloneness.

Occasionally, middle-east political events pulled me towards my people. When I heard the speakers refer to half-breeds from the podium, and saw how each speaker sought to establish their arab authenticity, I was no longer sure I was an arab-american; I was not sure I had the right to speak to the arab cause. I found it ironic that the intent of these meetings was to build the arab-american political constituency. But how could this constituency be built if after only one generation we are no longer arab-american, if the only way to build the political community is through new immigrants?


"ARAB'S LAST CATASTROPHE IN THE 20TH CENTURY"-(Al Majalla, October 24-30, 1999)

(The following is a summary of the article featured in Al Majalla, a weekly arabic current affairs magazine similar in format to Time.)

The writer surveys the factors that helped spread arab gay pride, and the effects this has had. He stresses the internet as the most significant factor in this development. He says that before the internet those people (gays) who are ultimately small in number were scattered all around the states and had no connection whatsoever with each other. Until the internet and email became widely available, especially in the States, gays or gay arabs in the western countries only had small communities in local cities and districts. With the internet, arab gays started adopting western ideas, and the idea of a free arab world and liberated gay societies started to emerge. Some gay arab activists started organizing email lists and meetings which were the first steps towards forming some very popular and active arab organizations in the US and Europe. It is obvious that he wanted to make sure that people who read the article would conclude that gays should never be accepted or sympathized with -- it is enough for one of the partners to declare his relationship for islamic law to sentence both of them to death. Killing them would get rid of a very rotten pocket in society.......


 

After years of living as an american, I am again searching for the means to integrate my lives and to gather myself with my family and culture. And so I have come full circle to my culture by connecting with arab lesbians via media like the internet, which has given me context and strength, allowing me to reconnect with my family again.

I think at this point in my life, I am most challenged to define my beliefs, the ways of relating that I feel most comfortable - and to what I belong -- because I am no longer any one thing. I am a mixed breed racially. Culturally, I have adapted to a new setting and an alternative lifestyle without having had my family behind me throughout my travel. I am a mutt with its own perspectives, needing to feel a part of something nonetheless. In searching for peace and self-acceptance, I cannot help but search for who I was. Despite my lifelong goal of moving forward and not reliving the past pains I have found I needed to claim the past pains in order to claim the past joys - both of which have played their role in defining me today.

And so I realized that I could go no further without resolving the past, and that I could no longer face the isolation. But I did not know what or who to claim. Or am I always waiting for someone to claim me?


...I am sorry for the troubles I've caused you and for the difficulties you now face. But, while I may not know you now, I knew that you had such a strong will, intellect, and confidence about you that will help you overcome much. And, for your future, I hope you find joy, love, and satisfaction in life. If I could ever be of help or lend an ear -- do not hesitate to call me -- but I will no longer contact you as it seems to be your wish. I will actually take comfort in the fact that I know it is your wish - although I would prefer to not end communications. Somehow your needing to stay away from me seems to justify Meriam's claims about me. I really hope you don't use her as your source of information to judge me - but I will not contact you any longer. Thank you for reading this. Hopefully, you don't think I am just some withering old fool who can't get over things in life - but I believe wounds need to be tended to and allowed to heal -- it makes us stronger to care for them and heal them properly. I just buried this pain -- and am now hoping by having finally said these things to you -- to heal. I hope you too find something in these words.

In sincerest friendship, Leila


  Twenty-five years later, I feel claimed again. I will hold regret about not having had arab lesbians to keep me from the isolation I experienced those many years. Nor the chance to have an arab as a lover. But I am comfortable again. I have again found an ease of relating that I have not felt in many years. It is wonderful to feel bundled with beings like I was with my cousins -- a void being filled. To touch and be touched without it being perceived as too intimate, because our personal boundaries are the same. To feel cared for, to be known, to mentor and be mentored. To feel the importance of the continuity of life through the generations. I can feel comfort in my path and context again. But it is a road that others have traveled alone and now, in the face of the diaspora, many more are traveling -- albeit the roads have different landscapes with different challenges.

The Salt Lake Tribune (Local Newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah 10/20/99)

"Four family members have been charged with aggravated kidnapping for allegedly beating a relative, then trying to force her on a plane headed for Jordan, Sandy police say. Apparently the daughter, 23, chose an alternative lifestyle and moved in with her lesbian roommate."


  Our paths require great strength and heroics in meeting the challenge to stay true to ourselves and to our cultural integrity, but hopefully we no longer must travel in isolation. We should all know that others travel a similar path and share our bond, our love of our culture and family, and our need to be connected. We each have different connections to our culture and to our pride and sense of owning our love of women as being whole and good. We share the need to claim our family and culture, and to transform them to be accepting of us and to claim us for our strengths and convictions.

"They should blame themselves (the family) for letting their girl stray; a real close arab family would have brought up their kids in a way, that they would never have to worry about them going astray - love, respect of roots and trust are the most powerful ingredients of any family."
-- quote from Baladna, a forum on Jordan-online.com
"love, respect of roots and trust are the most powerful ingredients of any family" -- true one, that is (LM)

 

I have needed my full-blooded arab friends born here and abroad to allow me to reclaim my arab identity. To overcome my family's version of events: already a half-breed, finally fallen subject to the western influence of being gay. I need to deal with my own racism towards myself, and other half-breeds, as the scourge of our culture, where the half-breed, a symbol of assimilation, embodies change and nonconformity to our cultural values. And I must bring my strength back to our community after having claimed myself as gay and having been strengthened by my bond with my partner of almost 17 years. Her challenges to me to find peace have been the guideposts of this journey.

I do not believe that I have sought to reconnect to my culture simply because it is what I feel most comfortable with. Nor do I believe that we, as arab lesbians, need to isolate ourselves and build rigid rules to protect us from assimilation, after all wasn't it my mother who sought to empower my father within his family, and to keep me within a strong cultural context. I believe essential features of our culture in building collective bonding and intimacy also build individual strength, and that individual strength is needed to maintain our community. I believe our respect of roots is respect for the continuity of life, the wisdom of age and vitality of youth, of what has come before us as well as of what lies ahead. It provides us stability in the most unstable of times.

Our challenge in claiming our cultural and political identity as arab lesbians is to know ourselves as arabs and as lesbians. To study ourselves, and to sort through the apparent paradoxes, to claim our identity and claim respect for ourselves. The shame and accusations of family betrayal can be immobilizing. We must find a way to support each other in becoming individually strong and creating a community of arab women to be part of our family. We must claim our community in our cultural context, our belief in respecting our heritage and the importance we give to family, while not betraying ourselves and making it clear that being gay has never been about betraying family.

I have felt fortified in claiming my identity with the support of these arab women as family, and have rid myself of the shame I so readily accepted. Perhaps the greatest transformation during this journey is in my view of things, no longer seeing myself as irresponsible to the family and needing to repent as if I were the prodigal child. Rather, I have begun to see aspects of the prodigal child in my family. If only we could have challenged each other sooner to overcome what seemed to be our irreconcilable differences for in our reconciliation we have become a stronger family, cherishing what each of us brings.


Leila,

As far as our family goes -- I don't think anyone does not know about your life and everyone only has respect for what you have accomplished... as for me -- I love you for the cousin I grew up with and am sorry for all the time we lost because of what happened in Lebanon and for myself being naive. There are so many more questions I want to ask you -- but maybe when we get together.

Love, your cousin Meriam


Leila,

Thank you for coming up with the idea of a family reunion and for making it happen... especially your Dad and you and (your partner) really deserve gold stars! I found myself becoming very emotional several times during the day because I felt so blessed to be part of such a loving family. I'm so happy that you're back in my life again. I love you, and you're one of my favorite people besides being one of my favorite cousins.

Your cousin, Anna


 


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