People tell me that after I met you I found peace. A calmness settled over me. Now whenever I’m away from you for too long, I feel unhinged. Before you, I had built walls, preparing for reality to cave in on me. I waited, in readiness, for that day to come. I didn’t quite understand what I was waiting for, but my instincts told me that there would one day be an existential battle. So I fortified, and I turned inwards. I gathered ammunition, and I waited. But instead of battle, there was you.
Over the years, you have come to shelter me and to protect me from my tormented self. You have stood there, unwavering, as I took down the bricks. Now I can finally tell you a story I began writing a decade ago. It is both a story untold before and one told too often. It is the story of the darting shadows.
I knew that I was odd long before I understood why. From the time when I was little, I recognized I was doing something that marked me. I saw flickers pass over almost all the eyes that locked with mine – a runaway shadow, darkening, like a black cat, scurrying behind a garbage pile, or a dimming of sunlight. I could never quite determine what the shadow was, exactly, but I could tell it was there.
I sensed the rustle in the bushes. Judgement, mockery, disgust, bewilderment, denial, suspicion, pity. These fleeting clouds in the eyes of people around me – children in my school, my parents’ friends and my friends’ parents, or even strangers in the streets of Amman – taught me everything I ever needed to know about myself and my place in the world. Well, my place in that world, at least. The world of the Arab Man.
The shadows spoke to me better than any words could. They danced around in a space where language is exchanged by glances, where human interaction is stripped to its rawest, most instinctual form. As a boy, the shadows were vicious weapons for which I had no defense. They perplexed me, because I felt I was doing something to elicit their perniciousness, something to which I was oblivious. The nasal pitch of my voice, perhaps. The loose wrists. The waddle of my walk.
The message these flickers of recognition sent to me was clear: “You are repulsive, an object of mockery.” The shadows taught me that the masculine superiority, which I saw all around me and which fascinated me a great deal, was never to be mine. I belonged in the margins. At least until the little khawal in me, the worthless excuse of a man, the faggot, was exorcized.
Though it falls short of capturing the repugnance inherent in the darting shadows, I knew that this word, khawal, was the closest to it. Every time I heard it, I felt venom. I bristled and knew that the shadows had taken on word form, morphed into a thing. But, this was the test, for me. Every time I was called khawal was a challenge to prove I wasn’t. To undo this indictment, shouted publicly in front of my friends, my brothers, the thousands of eyes flickering in the school yard, I needed to fight back. I was expected to, if I ever were to replenish my depleted masculinity. I had to throw a punch, to extricate the khawal from inside of me, to beat it into a lifeless pulp right then and there.
I never had the courage though. The khawal was always that much stronger, that much more rooted. It was easier to slouch away, to pretend I didn’t hear, even though I could feel my ears heat up. I hated the embarrassment and shame, but not enough to try and avoid it. I was unable to fight back – I did not exactly know what I was fighting against. It was easier to just languish on the sidelines, by the iron gates at school or the crisscrossed fences that circled the basketball courts. It was best to just avoid the cesspit that was the playground anyway. It was quieter on the margins.
Nowhere were the darting shadows more fierce than on the three-tiered white stairway with the bright blue railing leading down to the main playground. My memories of the twelve years I spent at this school have been dominated by the image of this stairway, with the chipped paint on the handrail. Looking down from the top landing at all the kids in their grey trousers and white shirts, my skin would flush in anticipation. I would try to blend into the background as I made my way down – a daily test of endurance. I would feign disinterest and attempt to acquire an air of unassuming indifference. Still, the ephemeral shadows never failed to materialize. A hushed giggle that only my hypersensitive ears, on alert and pulsating with adrenaline, could pick up. Or a slight, barely perceptible, lifting of the side of someone’s lip.
Though I knew I could avoid the shadows, if only I managed not to make eye contact, I never did. I would look around, masochistically challenging the pairs of eyes around me. I wanted to see these shadows, to harvest them in my soul as affirmation of my vague sense of deviance, my utter lack of self-worth. They were the fodder for the battles waging in my mind, battles where the person I aspired to be, the one I was expected to become, was pitted against this little mongrel.
If only they could read my mind, these kids, they would have seen I too was repulsed by this weakling. They would see I also wanted the thicker voice, the sturdier walk, the masculinity. I craved the fearlessness, the superb mechanical coordination of running after a ball. I wanted to experience that sense of effortlessly drifting through a crowd of people, unselfconsciously, without ever meeting a tirade of shadows. Everywhere around me, the boys had mastered this feeling. Or, rather, I should say, the men. For even though they were young boys, as I was, they were men in comparison. There was a chasm of sorts between us.
In the playground, amidst the blur of faces and the heads of kids running around, I would see Him. He was always there, in front of me, everywhere I turned, every classroom I went into, every hallway I walked down. This vision of Arab Masculinity, always there, in different forms and shapes. It seemed like I never could escape His presence in my life or the constant reminder that I was different from Him, that I was the deviant and He was my superior.
Sometimes I would walk next to Him, and He would be gentle and nice, forgiving my deficiencies by not acknowledging my existence. I would pass right next to Him. He would not utter a word, preferring to communicate only by glance. This usually happened when He was alone. Other times, I would walk in proximity to Him, and He would take notice, drawing us into a cruel exchange.
These days, fifteen years later, I see the shadows much less. On the streets of London, they have almost all disappeared. I still catch them here and there, darting away into the darkness, often when I hold your hand on the tube, or when I walk down the street with the black leather man-bag you hate. When I do, I am struck by a sense of nostalgia, as if I am reminded of who I am and where I come from.
The intermittent darkening gives me comfort, somehow reaffirming my identity, the one you taught me to accept. Perhaps the shadows were trying to do the same back then, when I was a little kid navigating the halls of my school. But at that time, they hadn’t yet been declawed or lost their bite.
‘One of the pitfalls of childhood,’ I once scribbled somewhere, ‘is that one doesn’t have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend, the wounds of the heart are already too deep.’ I don’t know where I first heard this thought, but it strikes me as being true.
We are all driven by instinct, and, when I was a child, mine was geared toward survival. Every day was a sprint. My guard was always up, anticipating the next shadow, the next khawal hurtled my way. Every day was an effort of absolute control over every tendon in my body, willing myself to undo whatever gesture might elicit contempt. Strengthening my wrists. Thickening my voice.
Of course, I failed, constantly. All I succeeded in doing was retreating inwards, as I fooled myself into thinking I had grown more resilient. I hadn’t, but perhaps the defenses I had thrown up were doing a better job. They stayed with me, shielded me, maintained the brick wall around me, for years.
Until I met you, that is. Until that khawal became the reason you entered my life.
Now that khawal has become my own version of masculinity. He has become the reason you love me.