We reveled in the way our unlikely friendships disturbed the world around us. In each other’s bodies, we found joy and brotherhood.
The following essay by Qais Kamran is part of the notebook I Want Sky, collecting prose, poems, and hybrid work celebrating Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy, and the lives of all LGBTQ+ Arabs and people of the SWANA region and its diaspora. Edited by Mariam Bazeed and published as a part of a partnership with Mizna, the notebook will also be available as a print issue this summer, including pieces exclusive to that format. Continue reading work published in this series here.
Late one night in 2016, I got a message from my friend N: There’s someone you have to meet. Come to C’s.
I was working at the time in a Mizrahi joint, in colonial Israel’s South Tel Aviv. A small café located on the cusp of the worst part of town, Albi was infamous for its hostile wait staff and the queers, refugees, and activists that called it home. My first queer elders were its founders, a butch Yeminite lesbian, and a transmasculine Iraqi guy.
When I got N’s message I was closing up for the night, in a rush to get to the burger place down the street before going home and doing my T shot. Tuesdays were for hamburgers and testosterone, I reminded N, who delighted in the Americanness of my ritual. A combination of his Yemenite mother and Russian father, N is the kind of friend who’s so handsome it took me a moment to get comfortable in our friendship. We met at Abli the day of his homecoming. After fifteen years abroad, ten years calling New York home, N returned to his birth country feeling foreign. As an American expat, I offered him a taste of home. We shared a desire to be encircled by trans folks, which is how, a few months into our friendship, we met C.
S I’m telling you, come to C’s. You have to meet someone. Can’t say more. Come.
C’s place was a windowless five by ten, no kitchen. As a transman exiled from his family, and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, in an apartheid country, it was the only option he had. But his home had four walls and a solid roof, which was more than I could say for other friends in those days. My coworkers, P and A, Eritrean refugees, shared a room with a tin slat for a roof until A was hauled off simply for seeking refuge to Saharonim Prison, a brutal refugee detention center that Israel built in the middle of the desert.
When I arrived C welcomed me with a mischievous look in his eyes. N was rolling a cigarette on the bed. Beside N, looking up at me, there was a boy with a round face and wide, curious eyes. Together we were four trans men, each in a different moment of transition. There, in a room so small our knees kissed, C told us the story of X’s sudden arrival.
C met X in a chatroom some months before, where they bonded over their love of a popular Arab singer. After moving to a private room they discovered they were both transgender Palestinian men, living on opposite sides of colonial Israel’s border. C came from a small village within the 48, X from a prominent family in a city I can’t name. It is only important to know that he, like C, has brothers. Many and older. That, at that time, his destiny was not his to control. X shared with C the impossibilities of his life. Taking hormones covertly, a taste that left him wanting more. C understood completely. He too had left home when the life he wanted in the body he needed wasn’t possible. It didn’t take long for C, loyal and industrious, to hatch a plan and smuggle X across the border. Though our expatriations were less extreme, N and I had journeyed far from home to make ourselves as well. This was one of the reasons C chose us that night. We were the first people X would meet on this journey, and the only ones he would trust completely.
In the months after his arrival, X and I got closer. He was pious. Quiet. Effeminate. N and I shared our queer lives with him while C struggled to keep him hidden from threats on all sides. The Israelis could do worse than send him back. His brothers could come looking. We didn’t know it then, but C too would become a threat. C had the habit of taking in lost boys to fill the void his family left in him. When they failed him, he beat them out of his life with his fists, his words, and his manmade rage.
C and X lived in the five by ten until, with heroic help from N, they moved to a larger apartment in Haifa. In Haifa, it was easier to find a Palestinian landlord, but it would also be harder to keep X a secret. Friends organized for him to see a doctor and start a regimented hormone program. He would come down on his days off, and we would go to parties where he met other Palestinian queers. We reveled in the way our unlikely friendships disturbed the world around us. In each other’s bodies, we found joy and brotherhood. We would sleep in the same bed, and, when his 5 am call-to-prayer alarm would go off, I would rise first. Before waking him, I would pause and take in his bright open face for a moment. I gave him a binder that fit a little better. I told him one day we would both leave that place. Maybe married, if that was the only way.
I promised X there could be happiness in queer life. I didn’t mean to lie. As an American, you’re filled with ideas of how you can save people. As a Jew you’re told, to save one life is to save the world. Whether conceits, they are compulsions I am unable to offload. I thought I could save X.
Keeping X hidden was a big risk for C. He started to resent the burden and his fists became restless. Then the police, notified by a nosy neighbor, began hunting. One night, C had enough. In the early morning, a bloodied X arrived at my door.
We began to plan his next escape.
I connected X to an organization that brought some of my family from Iran to the US. They took up his case knowing a trans-Palestinian refugee went straight to the top of the list.
That same year, my friend T, a Black Jamaican transgender woman, was refused asylum everywhere. Unlike X, she was condemned to remain paperless in Tel Aviv. It mattered to no one that she had undeniable evidence of the certain death that awaited her in Jamaica. The West only granted refuge to bodies that justified their imperial conquests.
At the time, X and I hoped for Canada. Before Sarah, Canada seemed like the safest place to seek asylum. In the end, he would be resettled in Sweden. Sweden wouldn’t be so bad, I told him. If he held out he would have a European passport, one of the most valuable identity cards in the world. I was among others who pushed him to go. Here, he would remain encircled by the fists of his brothers, of C, of the army and police. In Sweden, there were possibilities. There, he could access gender-affirming care and continue to take the form of the man he wanted to be. But equal to his desire to be a man in the world was his longing to become his father’s son. He didn’t want to be just any man. He wanted to be a Palestinian man, and to leave could mean to never return.
While his lawyers expected him to board a plane at a moment’s notice, we made a plan to take him home first to decide. Uncertain of the danger, we created a code in case his brothers stole his phone. They had done it before. We set a date after which, if I didn’t hear from him, I was to come looking. He wrote his given and family names in my journal beside three simple directions to his home. From there I was to ask about his family and someone would point me to his home. Everybody knew his family, he assured me. I was afraid he would never escape. I wanted him to get on that plane and go to Sweden. To be safe. To be free. To be the man I thought he wanted to be.
It turned out his father wanted him to go too. Driven by the love he had for his son, his father sought to understand him. A religious man, he found a perspective on transitioning that deemed it halal within Islam. The fatwa he studied was written by the same man who made my family refugees. His father asked what it would entail for X to transition and agreed, there was no place for that in his hometown, at least not yet. But maybe, he thought, X could go abroad and become a man, and return to be his son.
X made it back across the border in the nick of time. I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye. But I didn’t care. Sweden was supposed to save him. It did the opposite. It almost killed him.
Sent to a cold country full of cold people, X struggled, but he was optimistic. Hormones were easily accessible. Surgery was not far off. He was on his way to getting a passport. When we Skyped, he would take me around the snowy town in the middle of nowhere, where no one would speak to him. Where it was so cold he never felt warm. Then one day he told me a story. Something happened, and when X reported it, the state refused to believe him. They said the Swede who had harmed him was the only caseworker in the region that spoke Arabic. They wouldn’t fire him. They assigned X someone new but his relationship with the state had changed. Little accidents all the time. Important documents didn’t arrive or arrived too late, always with repercussions.
Then X started to get ill. I only found this out later. He hid it from me. For weeks I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. When he finally called, it was from a hospital bed. His health was deteriorating but the doctors had no explanation. He told me not to worry. He told me he would call me again after some time.
It wasn’t until he was back in Palestine that I got the full story. His elderly father was forced to reach across the seas and bring him back to safety. He was taken to Jordan for treatment for his illness, before returning home. He decided he would detransition, a process that involved not leaving the inside of his house for a year. By that time I had moved back to the States, my own surgery on the horizon after a decade of binding.
My return to occupied Turtle Island was overwhelming. The events that transpired during my first months back led me into a heavy depression. Abroad I had found eyes that could see me, and in returning I found myself vanishing. I realized I was losing my lifelong battle with suicide. With the help of the Queer Therapists of Color Network, I reached out to J, whose profile said he was trans and brown, like me. When I realized the cost I gave up on the idea, but a short while later J came back with a sliding scale opening.
J is my first therapist. Sometimes, I think of him as a friend. Our relationship is a big part of my life now. I know J likes me too. We laugh together. He looks genuinely concerned when I am struggling. When I lost my job at the beginning of the pandemic he gave me months of free sessions. Recently he protected me in a way nobody has protected me in my entire life.
At first, I wasn’t sure what the point of all the talking was. Sitting in the sessions there was a me assessing if they were worth it. I’m broke after all, and, even on the sliding scale, I was spending more money on therapy than food. Was it feeding me? It was hard to be sure session by session. The assurances came in gentle waves.
In the months before Sarah’s death, X went missing again. It didn’t seem possible that in this day and age a friend could slip through your electronic fingertips. The last time we spoke was after my surgery, many months ago. I was ashamed I’d gone so long without contacting him. Ashamed I hadn’t thought of his well-being sooner. But really, I was ashamed I had recoiled at his detransitioned body. And I had. I saw him safe, in the loving arms of his family, but I recoiled at his abandoned queerness.
I told J of my shame. What do you need to feel better about this, he asked? I needed to try harder to find him. I left that session and I tried harder. I scoured my old phone and asked N to use his local number to reach out to every contact of X that I’d saved. He was unreachable. I continued to wait for signs of him online, and J and I moved on to other topics.
Then came the news of Sarah.
When I first heard of Sarah Hegazy’s passing it was not that she died by suicide that hit me hardest. Neither was I haunted by memories of my first love, an Egyptian American who needed family more than queerness. Who found no pride in loving me. Whose loss brought me closer to death than I’d ever been. When I first heard of Sarah’s passing, I thought of X. What affected me most was that Sarah had died in Canada. That she died in a country purporting to save her from the homophobia back home. With the news of Sarah’s death, all my shame and fear rushed back to me. Where was my friend? Why was he missing again?
I returned to talking about X with J. I felt I was carrying the weight of his absence alone. It wasn’t that our friends from those days didn’t care about him. As queers we meet other lost souls all the time; if we become emotionally enmeshed with everyone, we wouldn’t survive. When X reentered his family, his queer patchwork family let go of him.
But I had promised not to.
He would always be my family.
I was telling J of the inescapable shame when he changed the conversation. He said, you’ve told me before that you are spiritual, what does that look like for you? What, I thought? We had been talking about my sorrows, why was he asking me about my religion now? I wanted to protest but I didn’t. I answered J’s questions one by one.
Yes, I believe in God. I believe we can communicate with people across great distances through our hearts. That spirits can speak to us through dreams, through a breeze, through a blossoming flower. Of course, there are limits. I do not believe we are all telepathic, or that ghosts hang out all day and talk to us. But, I have experienced things beyond what my rational mind contains. I’ve dreamt of lives I have not lived. Felt a pang in my heart and known from the ache alone that my beloved was lying with another. I’ve woken from dreams of death to find it had indeed happened that night. Coincidences or not, the debate doesn’t interest me. I have faith in a world of signs and wonder.
While J questioned me, a memory arose from a few days before. I was standing among friends on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, on the day of a march for Black Trans lives. While we gathered, a white butterfly hovered over us. J’s questioning brought forward the great sense of peace I’d felt when I saw her. I was able to access the part of myself that shame was hiding.
The part that believes two hearts can speak to each other without any intermediary but God. To trust X could hear me. To look for him communicating in holier ways.
A few weeks later, while weeding a carrot bed on a lush farm upstate, a white butterfly approached me. She hovered above me and with each flutter of her wings lifted the weight of his absence from my shoulders. I asked if she would take a message for me. When she left she took my guilt with her.
The white butterfly continued to visit me, whether because I chose to see her doesn’t matter. She was a reminder that X is out there. That I haven’t lost him forever. I wish I could say the same for Sarah. That her friends could hope like I do that with a bit of wandering and the right directions they could find her.
The last time I was face to face with X, we were both sitting in our childhood bedrooms, oceans apart. His hair was starting to reach his shoulders. He sounded happy. I could say she and call him by his other name, but I won’t. That name, written next to the directions, will stay in my notebook. He gave it to me only after I swore I would never call him that. The version of him sitting across from me the last time we spoke is not the one that blesses my memories.
The X I daydream of is walking beside me on a hot summer day in Yaffa. The soft red rumblings of his beard dance up his newly defined jawbone. The gentle peaks of his chest appear every so often under his sweaty white t-shirt. I worry someone would notice him and realize I, too, was an illusion freshly formed. But nobody notices the peaks, they only see his extraordinary beauty. A face that is so itself, so Palestinian, to look upon it on that summer day was like drinking water. It is the face in the picture across from me now, his passport photo taken before he left for Sweden. Taped above it is the card from Sarah’s vigil that reads, But I forgive. As I write this, snow is on the ground in Brooklyn and the butterflies have yet to return. I am waiting impatiently for X to appear the way the rest of the world is waiting for spring. I know it is coming but it is hard to believe. And if that doesn’t happen, if he can’t log back on, I have a journey in my future.
The name of the town.
The name of his father that should bring me to his house.