Re-oriented: On treading the queer path
Words by Ahmed Awadalla
Her long baby face is ingrained in memory, surrounded by long wavy hair. Her full-length, vibrantly colorful dresses, with signature shoulder pads of the 1980s. Yet her large eyeglasses made her stand out. The only diva to wear glasses while performing. Aesthetics didn't come first for her; she insisted on properly seeing her audience.
I watched her concerts on Egyptian TV next to my mother, who zealously tuned in. Singer Aziza Jalal, hailing from Meknes, a small city in Morocco, quickly became a star in the Arabic-speaking world. Her most famous song is Mestaniyak, about a lover waiting in agony and longing for a man who went abroad. It was no coincidence this song became viral in Egypt. This country was undergoing a wave of mass emigration, particularly to oil-producing Arab Gulf countries, tearing many Egyptian families apart.
At the height of her fame, in 1985, and only at 27, she suddenly quit her musical career. In the same year, I was born. A coincidence no more. However, coincidences gain significance in my journey to understand what makes a queer path, what makes and unmakes us, and how emotions orient our way. When excavating a queer path, the details matter.
I feel ambivalent about traveling alone. Yet on my trip to Morocco, I had no qualms about it. I was excited that I am finally going to visit a country in North Africa, my region. That I would be able to leave the old European continent for a change. My hope was that proximity would make me feel 'oriented' in a way. Since I escaped from Cairo to Berlin, there has been no prospect of return. I have been out of place, disoriented, as if the ground beneath my feet felt uneven and oblique.
I posted a photo of Marrakech on Facebook, with a caption that says, ‘Morocco is the closest to home I have been in a long time.’ "But Greece is closer to Egypt," a friend I had met in Athens commented. She was right, but I wasn't geographically speaking.
I didn't particularly worry about who to meet on my trip. Instead, I activated my queer social network. A network that traverses borders. A life of activism can mean that a reasonable time is spent at conferences and networking events. A community of friends and friends of friends is the fruit of labor. A friend suggested that his mother, who lives in Meknes, a town in northern central Morocco, would host me for a couple of days. The idea was appealing.
I spent substantial time in Casablanca, Marrakech, and Tangier, between regular sightseeing and exploring hidden queer spots. It was time for another kind of experience. I needed time away from tourists in particular. The few times I interacted with some of them were terrible. On an organized trip to the Western Desert, I met a German girl whose first question was what brought me to Berlin. A question that requires me to simplify and translate the painful and predominantly random conditions of my uprootedness. I wanted to answer 'global injustice,' but instead, I said techno. She looked confused. On another day, a French tourist requested me to buy water on his behalf because he didn't want to get ripped off by locals. "You look and speak like them", he said. I don't want to hear or see any of this. The point of leaving Europe was to evade this kind of encounters, marked by aggressive curiosity and patronizing superiority.
On the phone with my friend's mother, she suggested taking the train to Meknes. She made sure my stay would be as comfortable as it gets. She stuffed me with delicious tajin, gave me advice on where to go, and asked me not to stay out too long, just like a natural mama.
She insisted on fetching me from the train station. I tried to dissuade her to no avail. A last-minute change of plans interfered. Something came up, and her friend was to pick me up instead. "I gave her your number, don't worry, they will take care of you," she reassured me on the phone. On the platform, a woman was waiting; she looked somewhat weary. Behind her stood her daughter, a girl who seemed like she had just entered her second decade. I politely declined their offer to help with the luggage. We got in a taxi and drove to the house.
The threads of the scheme became visible as we arrived to the house, a three-story building, where the mama lives alone after her husband died and her children settled abroad. The mama, wearing a loose headscarf that barely covered her gray hair, asked the girl to show me the house. This was strange given she, like me, was also a guest. 'You could see all of Meknes from the rooftop', the mama encouraged me. The mothers were plotting some alone time between us. I was on a blind date that I did not sign up for and, to make it more complicated, my date was far from the object of my desire.
It was a hot day, but the angle of the sun felt familiar and friendly. On the rooftop, we exchanged small talk. I asked about the mountain range visible from a distance. 'They look even more beautiful during sunset,' she advised. Of all the other cities I visited in Morocco, Meknes looked most like my hometown in Egypt. Its nondescript buildings and raw beauty. Small towns, far from the center, where people lead marginal lives, are ignored by their governments and tourists alike. Some accept their path here; others look beyond the horizon, demanding more.
I leaned on the fence, gazing at the surroundings. On the opposite greenfield, a dozen boys were playing football. The water film covering my eyes thickens as my memories with football yards rush back. This was bound to happen when I decided to come here. A life in exile cuts off access to an archive of feelings and memories. In Meknes, I remember.
After a party in Berlin, I sat with a friend by the Spree river and smoked. We reverted to speaking in mother tongues, speaking our different dialects of Arabic, after a long night of switching languages. We played music, shuffling different genres, a bit of techno, some pop until, we eventually settled on Arabic oldies. Singing along, I felt tarab, a particular emotional state, similar to ecstasy; the only contradiction is that it doesn't have to be happy songs. You can reach ecstasy with songs of separation, heartbreak, and unrequited love. The lyrics, poetic yes but also over the top, someone's world blooms when he sees his lover, another dedicates her life to a lover who doesn't know she exists. These words shape how attachment patterns from, how we fall in love, my friend proposed. A compelling theory. Words shape reality, not only in songs. Images, patterns, and promises shape the contours of our emotions. It is possible that Aziza Jalal's song about waiting for a traveler abroad informs my emotions about exile.
I had another date in Meknes. It was no blind date, rather one almost three years in the making. I met Sami at a gay club in Düsseldorf while I was there for a conference (I really should write about conference travels at some point). The club had a big banner on the walls showing a white man and a black man locking lips. Sami struck me with his all-white outfit, gentle perfume, and attentive manners. He was there with a German guy, who had hosted him during his short stay in Germany. Unlike Berlin, we had to step outside for cigarettes. We were alone. He touched my lips with his fingers in a way that suggested desire. When we went back, he kissed his date as if reassuring him. I made an extra effort to make my smile look effortless. We exchanged numbers in case we would ever cross paths in the future. Our desire was consummated.
"I need to go to the supermarket first," Sami began. I am struck by his casualness. We go grocery shopping then to a shisha bar—just another regular evening in Meknes. Sami doesn't straighten his gait or harshen his voice. When I comment on that, he tells me he doesn't like pretending or hiding. He was married for a couple of years before they parted ways. He shows me a photo of his daughter, my precious, he calls her. Queer paths are not straight, even if we walk down consecutive lines.
He pays the check at the shisha bar, "Come, I will show you Meknes," he tells me, smiling. In his car, we watch the old city gates, mosques, bridges, and ancient ruins. Finally, we make a stop by the basin, a large artificial lake lit by sympathetic yellow lights—a spot where lovers steal kisses in the darkness of their vehicles. Stolen, fleeting moments of intimacy, illicit among its surroundings, could taste richer. I don't remember during which part of the night we talked about Aziza Jalal.
It has always confused me how we talk about sexual orientation regarding the gender of the object of desire. Same-sex, different sex, or both. What about age, ethnicity, class, body type, and other delineators. What about character, smell, and posture. We are oriented towards certain bodies because we are so different, or because we are similar, or simply under habit and repetition. When I was young, I always thought I would end up with someone from my culture who can understand the jokes and who knows the songs. I no longer believe so. But a soft spot lingers. Our orientations put some things in reach and others not.
I was struck by one of Meknes's sights. Sami drove by an ancient graveyard, slowing down as we passed by. Outside the fences of the cemetery, there was a singular grave. Why was it outside? Who was expelled from the community of the dead? It is the grave of Sidi Amer, buried outside because he was rumored to be homosexual, Sami said in an almost ironic tone. While there are other theories about the ostracism of Sidi Amer, this one is significant.
A deviation in life might haunt you in death. Instead of mourning, a queer death turns into a cautionary tale. In her book Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that 'leaving the straight path can be so hard, it means losing a support system. When you follow the path, your loves are celebrated collectively, and your losses are mourned collectively'. The milestones of heterosexual life (birth, employment, procreation, death) are candidly observed, while for queers, mourning our queer kinship can be a struggle even in death.
I think of the mothers' scheme to get me married while being a tourist in Morocco. There is a lot of hope behind this scheme. Great expectations. My mother would not go so far as to arrange blind dates, but indeed it is her wish to see me married, following the well-trodden path.
In his essay ‘Reflections On Exile’, Edward Said writes that "exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience," suggesting a valuable sensibility that arises of uprooting. At the hand of exile, I can understand the ideology of the well-trodden path, why mothers' love demands us to follow specific paths, and how choosing our own feels like a betrayal to them. Yet, to understand is not to agree or concede but to wonder. If our families and communities could not provide unconditional love, what sort of kinship and alternative worlds can we cultivate?
Exile plays out as fragmentation and forgetting. To reconnect with lost, scattered shards of the self, there must be a return of sorts. In return to Meknes, the path is delineated and revealed. New connections are forged. Different paths arise.