(That’s a crappy title I know, but I can’t think of a better one!!!)
You always hear that words mark you. As a child, I was called names sometimes, but not so much that it traumatized me. There is however, a single sentence that I heard when I was younger that has had a lasting impact on me to this day.
When I was 11 years old, with the war blowing up in Beirut, and living in the crossfires of just about every single militia, my parents decide that we need a break from this madness. We’re lucky enough to be able to afford a vacation, and we leave on a 3-week trip to Los Angeles. I’m the only one in my family that has never traveled outside the country, so every single minute of this is an overbearing experience. I am fascinated by everything, amazed by everything.
While we’re away visiting new places, the situation in Beirut escalates, and a bomb lands way too near to our house for comfort. My parents decide to settle in Los Angeles.
Fast forward to a couple years later.
We’re back in Beirut, visiting.
The Taef Accord has been signed and peace is back.
My parents are thinking about moving back.
They decide to take us to Downtown Beirut, a place we had never been to, having grown up in East Beirut and never having crossed the Green Line.
In the car with me: my dad, my mom, my brother, my sister, and a cousin.
Going through the bombed-out city center, I feel the same way I felt when I first flew to Los Angeles. I am discovering my country for the first time, seeing it at its most raw. There is nothing but destruction. I had seen bombed out buildings before and had seen the aftermath of car bombs before, but not in such concentration. Everything around me is dead, including a cow that is rotting away in the heat.
I am slightly older now, so I begin to understand war. For the first time ever, I question everything. Why?
As we drive through the devastation, down a small street, we see two men holding hands. This is not a revolutionary act of expression. These are two men holding hands the way Arab men have always held hands: a sign of affection that is entirely masculine and with no sexual connotation. (Unfortunately, Western ideas of male bonding have had a pretty damaging effect on such displays of affection between two heterosexual men in our country.)
I had barely noticed the men, focused on the war-torn buildings around me. That is until I hear someone in the car say: “All Shiites are faggots.”
This statement has a strange impact on me. Up to that point, these comments are commonplace. Nothing unusual for me. I’ve spent my life living in a country where Muslims and Christians have been fighting against each other. Having been raised in a Christian family, in a Christian neighborhood, and in a Christian school, anti-Muslim comments are all around me.
Until that very moment, I had never thought anything about them.
This time though, it strikes me as odd.
I am still discovering my sexuality, but by this point, I am pretty certain I am a “faggot”.
But I’m not Shiite. But what does that have to do with it?
The context highlights the danger of that comment. Within the backdrop of complete destruction, an innocent sign of affection, of bonding, of friendship, of hope is interpreted in a violent, judgmental way.
I don’t get it. Or rather, sadly, I finally get it.
For me, that statement alone was responsible for all of the destruction I was seeing around me. I wouldn’t stand for it anymore.
For days, months, years, that sentence echoes in my head. It shapes who I am, pushes me to question things I hear, forces me to rethink what I’ve grown up to believe. It defines how I decide to understand the war, my family’s role in the war, my environment’s relationship with the “other”. It shapes my sexuality as a an act of rebellion against what I know is wrong. It positions my old thinking as evil and presents a new approach based on acceptance, love, and understanding. It clarifies the power of hate for me.
20 years later, I still remember that day very well. I am certain that the person who said that comment doesn’t even remember uttering it. He has made similar comments since, in the same nonchalant way. For me though, that comment summarized what I did not want to be a part of. I have spent my life since trying to make sure I never end up thinking that way.