In the hours and days after her death, I kept returning to that picture of Sarah Hegazy which first surfaced in 2017 after she was arrested: A young woman beaming against the backdrop of Cairo’s polluted skies and bright concert lights. She was raised above the crowds, possibly on someone’s shoulders, her arms held high. The rainbow flag she was clutching fell across her back, like a cape.
The look of joy on her face haunted me. Her lightness. Apparently unburdened by the weight of her being. Carelessly draping the flag around her shoulders. The picture was not one of defiance, but of easy presence. In a single, flippant moment, she had let her guard down, and allowed herself to be peaceful in her own skin. Maybe even proud. Against the backdrop of an endless crowd, there was only her, and a moment of intimacy with the camera. She looked free. That is why the photograph was so threatening to her tormentors. Because it captured a fleeting suggestion that happiness and freedom at home might be possible for people like us.
As queer Arabs, members of the LGBTQ+ community, we learn how to survive before we even know what it is that we are surviving. We learn the socially acceptable way to walk and talk. How to wear our masculinity or femininity and how to perform each in ways that don’t land us in trouble. How to concoct intricate realities, how to live plausible lies. We snap our wrists when they are too loose, control our hips when they sway too far and force ourselves into pink dresses when we long for jeans. We soften or deepen our voices. We mimic the gestures around us instead of finding our own.
We sculpt masks and, for the most part, we keep them on. Even as we prosper in cities around the region, find friends and lovers, create safe spaces and cultivate communities, build homes and work, we exist on the peripheries. We are all trying, in our own ways, to live in a world that, at best, legally erases us and at worst, condemns us to death. Social circles that at best, tolerate us and at worst, ostracize and banish us.
Some of us fare better than others. Some thrive, others falter. Some internalize their public personas, others the hate they receive. Some hide, others run away. Some enter straight marriages, others come out, while most live in the space in between, not crumbling yet not quite thriving either. Then there are those brave souls, like Sarah Hegazy, who live their truth for all to see, allowing us to dream of a reality where our sexuality does not define the extent of who we are. Maybe times are changing, we tell ourselves. Maybe we can let our guard down just a little, to flirt or to be. To affirm ourselves and test the boundaries of our world.
Then comes the cruel wake-up call. Any one of us could have been Sarah, with her carefree gesture on a fun night out, drunk on delusions of hope. Celebrating camaraderie and the bliss of being surrounded by people who see and accept. Her happiness was rewarded with imprisonment, electrocution, sexual assault and exile. A reminder, as if any more are needed, that we, queer Arabs, must always keep our masks within reach.
My phone rang incessantly in the hours and days after her death. I did not know Sarah personally and we had no friends in common, so I was unprepared for how personal the loss felt. The messages landing in my inbox told me that others felt the same. Organically, we found ourselves in circles of communal grieving, spanning London to Lisbon to Boston, Amman to Haifa to Beirut. What was it about Sarah’s story that touched all of us in this way, beyond the meaningless tragedy of it all?
I masochistically scrolled through post after post on social media in search of answers. This was a selfish and numbing exercise. I wanted to see what people were saying, to try to understand the landscape of the conversation around her death. Every time someone came out in solidarity with her, I felt a burst of hope. Some people see us. Many rallied in grief and support. We need those allies, the privileged who can speak on our behalf, and can be heard in ways we are not.
But the deluge of hate was overwhelming. In the channels I looked at, people could not decide which part of her to take down first. They competed in their judgement of her as a means of affirming their own self-righteousness. Comment after comment of vile anger, and I could not make out what most rattled these commentators, her queerness or her atheism, her communism or her feminism. Equal offenders, they all seemed, as the detractors cited endless verses from our holy books to justify hateful condemnation.
Not least offensive, of course, was the nature of her death. Those who take their own lives deserve to burn in hell and can be shown no mercy. Never mind reckoning with the view that Sarah did not take her own life, but was killed by our society’s smallness and its incapacity to make room for the breadth of her humanity.
I tried to convince myself I was not upset by the comments, having normalized this hateful rhetoric over many years, and having long dismissed it as illogical and incoherent. But I had forgotten how dangerous vile words could be. Peering into this parallel universe I was suddenly curious. What are they so scared of?
Why does the idea of a communist, atheist, lesbian invoke state violence, religious condemnation and patriarchal hate?
I know the answers to all those questions, of course. We all do. We carry them in our bones. There is nothing more frightening than threatened insecurity. I’m simply asking to show the absurdity of it all.
Arab nations, in all their might, trembling in the face of a happy young woman.
Sarah’s death evokes to my mind Samir Kassir’s reflections on the Arab malaise: The pervasive feeling of inadequacy that permeates our world is so damning, so wholly crippling, that many find it easier to flee.
Like other queers from the region, I am painfully familiar with the choice we all face at some point in our lives: conform or vanish. Growing up in the region, there was no sign of queerness in the ecosystem around me. Before the internet, I somehow taught myself that all the voices in my soul which whispered to me that I was gay were dangerous. They had to be crushed. Conform or vanish. That is the persistent message that is unwittingly or maliciously drummed into us. There is only one kind of normal.
Faced with that choice, I, as many of us do, absented a part of myself. I was privileged enough that what Kassir calls the “individual flight” was possible for me. I built a home elsewhere, in London. Many others, too many, have chosen lives outside the Middle East. Steeped in our privilege, we carry immense guilt at being able to flee, along with much homesickness.
Exile is too strong a word; estrangement perhaps more fitting. We could choose to stay. Many do with no regrets, while others are choked by the tyranny of what is deemed normal around them. Most do not have that choice in the first place. But here is what I did not know when I chose to be in London: we carry our homes in our hearts. Whether we stay or flee, estrangement affects us the same way. The messages landing in my phone showed that our collective pain knew no geographic boundaries. Because a person can vanish themselves and be exiled from their families and their communities even when they stay put.
We have yet to collectively acknowledge the violence inherent in being told, explicitly or otherwise, that we are not welcome in our homes. Sarah’s tragedy touched so many of us because her story was the extreme version of what we are all living. She fled to safety in Canada. That should have been the end of her tragedy, not a new chapter of pain. She could have prospered, some say. But those of us who flee know better. We carry our past traumas with us into foreign lands, where they metastasize. Geographic separation might provide physical safety, but the initial expulsion from our homes still ultimately tears us apart. Sarah’s death, alone in Toronto, was the confirmation of everything we fear: dying alone, away from our homes, judged and hated by our societies, even after we pass.
It is the accusation that we are foreign agents that I am most bitter about. That our minds have been colonized. We are Westernized. Godless. Corrupted by values that have no place in our Arab world. While American capitalism floods our streets and Israeli surveillance equipment arm our dictators, it is the woman wrapped in a rainbow-colored flag who is the corrupting foreign agent.
We are the products of the very same world you inhabit. We come from Saudi Arabia and Palestine and Jordan and Qatar and Bahrain, and we breathe the same air you breathe. We love the same food and music that you do. We share the same politics and we fight the same causes. We are Islamist and we are secular. We are, by birth and by choice, queer Arabs. And let me tell you, there are hordes of us.
As the years unfolded before me in London, and my own mask came off, I realized that I resented the choice I was forced to make. Choosing between my gayness and my belonging was not something I could do. It was a binary I rejected.
I began the journey to reclaim my homeland about the same time that Mashrou’ Leila’s arresting tunes were filling our airwaves. The music was revolutionary because it created a different reality. It gave voice to an Arab milieu that not only tolerated us, but understood us with all our idiosyncrasies. The music and the lyrics held us in our complexities, our queerness and Arabness and diverse politics and faiths, and mitigated the demand for us to choose between all these polarities. It evoked the smell of jasmine in the air and the tiresome nagging of our mothers even as it acknowledged our capacity for authentic love and our melancholy. The crowds flocked and men and women could see, unlike in my childhood, a version of themselves thriving, embracing their humanity to its fullest. Realizing they are not alone.
It was a time when millions were pushing a regional politics of dignity, of humanism, not of authoritarianism and corruption. That was then and this is now.
Is our Arabness so brittle that it can only survive in homogenous terms? What is it that makes us so insecure about our Arabness that we can make no room for the millions of shades that we are painted, whether Islamist or secular, queer or straight?
Imagine an Arab identity strong enough to hold us all, side by side, instead of trying to dictate a single narrative. Like Mashrou’ Leila taking strands of our identity and weaving them together into a single moving ballad.
If only we would let it.
Maybe this is naïve idealism. Maybe this is why Sarah knew better. She said it best when she wrote that the heavens are sweeter than this earth. She did not need to explain which she was choosing. Who can blame her? This earth had let her, and so many others, down and had shattered a million and more dreams.
I myself finally shattered when I heard Hamed Sinno, Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer, take Sarah’s words and give them life with his soulful voice. Wearing a black T-shirt that read “but our earth lives within us,” he captured perfectly our pain, and the knowledge that our homeland, just like our exile, rests within our hearts. And just as his voice had given me space to dream, it also permitted me to grieve. To mourn, not only Sarah’s death, but also the cost our revolution for acceptance demands. The price we have to pay so that our lives might one day no longer be conditional.
We’re not quite there yet. But we will be, because we’re not going anywhere, and we refuse for our love of the region to be made contingent on an impossible self-denial. As we came together by text and phone this past week, there was joy in our communal sisterhood and brotherhood. The same space where Sarah first let her guard down, in that concert, surrounded by friends and allies, recreated itself and held us in our estrangement.
As Hamed’s face contorted in emotion, the tears finally flowed down my cheeks. I thought of Sarah. Her story was specific to her, but touches all those souls who are persecuted, for their sexuality or their politics, their faiths or their race, whether they are exiled in strange lands or familiar ones, because of silent wars or explosive ones. As Sarah makes her way to her heavens, she reminds us that to live, we must live in our wholeness, with all the messy, painful, complex contradictions that make us human. Our lives are not conditional on anything. Neither was hers. Rest in power, comrade.