I am Egyptian and am studying at an American university. I am only allowed to work on campus lest I steal good jobs from Americans. I do not mind the United States protecting its citizens this way, and wonder why my country does nothing to protect itself from white saviorism and corporate incursions.
A few months into my stay, people are already regularly mistaking me for being American because of my accent. Since I wear a hijab, they ask me about “the American Muslim community.” I know nothing. “I am not American,” I say. My neighbors think it is odd I do not want to stay in the United States after completing my studies. “If you were studying where I am from, would you want to stay?” “No,” they tell me, “but that’s different.” Right.
I go about my year being told how unusually articulate I am. I am doing well at school despite where I come from and being a woman who should otherwise be confined to an oppressive Muslim home. I am the exception. Other people from my country cannot possibly be as capable. Every “positive” remark is a scathing backhanded compliment. I do not know how to respond and smile instead.
At my job, my boss asks me if I feel safer in the United States as a woman. I try to evade the question out of politeness and weariness. I fail and leave it at “not really.” I wish I could look up techniques to curb the unchecked, unintentional, pervasive orientalism of folks in the West.
I am told my world has always been the way it is, that peace is impossible, that liberty is impossible because of the “kind of people” we are. I am told I should be grateful for colonialism; at least no one was beheaded or publicly lashed back then. I note that British and French colonialist administrations did, in fact, lash hundreds; hanged and imprisoned thousands.
A professor compares me to a woman stuck in a polygamous marriage. She suggests that, as Muslim women, we delude ourselves into thinking we are not oppressed – a collective false consciousness. Her white skin makes her an expert on diversity and her PhD validates her opinions as truths. My face is flushed and my heart and mind enraged. Only one classmate realizes how problematic her assumptions are. She mouths to me that I should say something – challenge her. I tell her later that it would have made no difference. I never speak in that class again.
A few months earlier, I had met the woman I will love forever. She is beautiful and her eyes carry hundreds of untold stories. She sees all of me – unveiled and uninhibited. She loves me in all my Muslim queerness, in my femininity and in my unapologetic impertinence. She does not concern herself with the assumptions of a world that sees me as a walking contradiction. I exist and that is enough of an explanation for her. Our brown cultures, divided by hundreds of kilometers of lands and oceans, unite in us and in the little desserts we make.
My friends take me out for a queer party night on my birthday. At the bar, I try to avoid anyone who does not belong to our group. Waiting in line for the restroom, a woman approaches me to ask me why I was there. Naively, I explain that I am waiting my turn. She clarifies and asks why someone like me is at a gay bar. The moment the words “because I am queer” leave my mouth, I feel an unabating anger towards myself in my chest. Why am I explaining myself? What right does she have to question me? Why did I not say something witty or sarcastic? As she proceeds to hit on me, I wonder if that was her ingenious idea of an icebreaker.
I move into an Afro-Latino neighborhood and feel more at home than I have felt in years. I am alien to them and yet they do not alienate me. I can breathe more easily. I promise my love I will learn Spanish.
I tell my love I feel alone and lost. I feel like the only one of my kind. It takes me over a year to find a queer Muslim group. They are young, strong, and beautiful. They are fighters and survivors. I love them. They quench the Muslim part of my identity. They are American. While I am their age, I have more in common with their immigrant parents. Could it be that I am an immigrant too? Is that what it is? I may be a temporary and reluctant immigrant, but an immigrant no less. How do I resolve this undying alienation?
My love tells me stories about her parents. I see myself in them. Their narratives sustain me, though we have nothing in common save a truly alienated existence. I love her parents on principle. But, I fear I do not have their strength. Their unbreakable spirit. She tells me that white America is not the only America.
I am scared. Some fears are valid and some are not. They all morph together and I cannot tell them apart. But she holds me. She tells me that she will keep me safe. I ask her: “do you think I am hated more for my queerness or for my Islam?” She holds me tighter and I feel whole in my foreign Muslim queerness.