Being born in the Arabic language is not original. Today in the world, 400 million people are estimated to be Arabic speakers. Born and pampered in a middle-class Syrian family, I said my first words in Syrian Arabic.
As a middle child with four brothers and five sisters, I soon felt different from the other men. By comparing myself to my male friends, I observed that I did not fit the stereotype of the “normal Syrian man” who seemed to please girls so much. Over the years, this difference has been exacerbated, pushing me to disguise my behavior.
As a young adult, I slightly escaped this imperative by immersing myself in the English language. Registered in English-speaking literature courses at the University of Damascus, I discovered a language-escapism. If I found a familiar comfort in the Arabic language, the practice of English enabled me to escape from social injunctions. During my studies, I submerged myself in Hollywood movies, in American music, and more generally, in the so-called “pop culture.” I watched men with very different practices and behaviors from the standard Syrian model. In secret, it allowed me to build my identity and love myself; there was a parallel reality in which I was not particularly different.
But to build a career of polyglot in the Syrian capital — a city overloaded with bombings and kidnappings — wasn’t easy. The civil war had no interest in my linguistic and literary sensibilities. In 2013, I fled Damascus for Cairo. Several members of my family also left the country. We are now scattered between Germany, Syria, Canada and the Gulf countries.
Despite the heartbreak, I experienced this departure as an opportunity to finally put words on a latent uneasiness: I was homosexual. Yet, I kept these words to myself. Homosexuality is a transgression in current Arab society and Egypt is no exception.
When I moved to Cairo — a city in post-revolution — I was hired as a teacher in an English language center. These centers are very popular in Egypt. All sorts of people hang out there, so it became easy for me to approach the country’s customs. Egypt was a country tougher than I would have believed.
I had in my clientele countless young men and women who made their apprenticeship a decompression valve. My clients would share their grievances with me: “I do not want to stay with my husband, he does not treat me well,” “I want to be an artist but my father forces me to be a doctor,” “I have two children, I cannot leave.” Each student had his or her lot of stories and problems.
Through these stories, I noticed a gap between the roughness of the social rules and the impression that many were burning with the desire to smoke hashish or to collect lovers. Some practices were on the rise, such as customary marriage, or the the Urfi marriage, which is much appreciated by heteronormative couples. Indeed, this type of marriage is in conformity with Sharia (the Islamic law) but the marriage is not registered at the the Civil Registry. It allows couple to take a room for two in hotels. In addition, the police — quite active in matters of moral and vice — cannot arrest an Urfi couple. Finally, unlike traditional marriage, the Urfi marriage is easy to break and does not involve both families, which would imply a (too) serious commitment of the two partners.
English seemed liberating for Egyptians; I am not sure I could have gotten their confessions in Arabic. The fact is they spoke in English with me, more and more precisely as their levels increased. I never knew if it was the liberating nature of my courses that caused it, but their impressive progression delighted my employers.
By becoming a successful teacher, I drew attention to myself. I was often asked, “Are you married Mr. Rahal?” These questions drove me to pretend again. So I invented a girlfriend, a certain Susanne, a British expatriate whose beauty I used to exaggerate. My entourage loved the idea that I went out with an English woman and I was left alone for a while.
The roommates with whom I shared an apartment in the Rehab area in Cairo were less likely to be fooled. They once surprised me while I was flirting on the phone with another man. They soon threatened to talk to my employers about my sexual practices. I understood then that I could not live long if I were to continue to lie to others and fear for my reputation or my physical integrity.
A few months later, I was granted refugee status and moved to Quebec. The sensitive boy who had hidden his homosexuality on Syrian soil, the popular English teacher in Cairo who had feared for his reputation, they were now going to become someone else again. And now, as I learn French, I will also take on a new identity — who will I become in Montreal?