Stepping off the plane, walking through the airport, the smell that hit was like many developing countries I’d visited – dense, rich, unsterilised. But this time, I was surrounded by people talking in a tongue I could understand and feel (though using it is a constant struggle that requires summoning memories from childhood). Walking through customs, trying to gather the language required to answer their questions. In unfaltering English, an officer asks the reason for my visit. Holiday. First time to Lebanon? Yes. But you’re a Malouf? Yes, I am.
I’ve always existed somewhere in between. Between cultures and colours, genders and sexuality. Between spiritual and atheist, creator and imitator. Belonging has always been a theoretical idea for me, not a sensation rooted firmly in any place or person, any community or group. Until the end of last year, that is.
For as long as I can remember, since the smell of my dad’s lentil dish mjardra wafted through the house, ever since the painful, haunting and powerful voice of Fairuz played on the stereo, since my mother beckoned me into the kitchen and asked me to pour more olive oil over the tabouli while she mixed it with her hands, to taste it and tell her whether it needed more salt, I have felt the call of Lebanon in my gut.
Growing up in the bush, surrounded by gum trees, red-belly black snakes and hairy huge huntsmen felt as natural to me as picking parsley, or trying to decipher Arabic when my parents were talking in secret or watching my aunties laugh as they belly danced to terrible 90s pop music. Those many worlds felt like they fit together.
Still, I didn’t feel like I fully belonged. My family would talk of traditional things that seemed archaic – the path a life should take, the sacrifices one had to make in order to adhere to the codes of a culture that was a big part of me. But I was exposed to worlds outside the traditional which created conflicting ideas of existence.
At school, nothing felt right. There were boys whose affections extended to sleazy come ons and reasons we should get busy in the out-of-bounds area, while I was more interested in my latest girl crush. Most of the teachers didn’t understand that I wasn’t stupid, I just wasn’t engaged – but they’d made their minds up about me (and many of my Lebanese, Greek, Maltese and Italian friends) early on.
I almost flunked my HSC completely but Dad, who was determined I was going to be a lawyer, made sure I was straight onto a night bridging course at Sydney Uni. Sydney Uni, right next to lesbian strip King Street, which contained one of the most popular dyke bars in Sydney (arguably Australia). Back then, the Bank Hotel was dark and grimy and butch dykes would bring their own pool cues. I was introduced to a whole other world I had spent my teens fantasising about. Out went night classes (and law altogether), in came rendezvous with lesbians who taught me the ropes and showed me what lezzo Sydney looked like. It felt good, like I had almost made it home. Almost. But there weren’t that many like me, and I didn’t know how to find them. It was at that point that I started to believe I was always going to exist in some sort of periphery.
Time passed, I moved through so many different types of me – the corporate me before my full-blown social awakening, the artist me, the traveller me, the activist me. Every time I found new, brimming communities and I still felt like an outsider.
Finally, in November 2015, I couldn’t ignore my guts pull to Lebanon anymore. My partner and I spent three weeks travelling around a country smaller than Sydney. We stayed days and nights in Beirut, where brand new 4WD Porches battled it out in tiny alleyways with 30 year old Mercedes. Horns rang out incessantly, like the whole city drove with one palm on the horn, the other out the window with a cigarette. As pedestrians we had to be careful not to catch our foot on protruding cement or steel from buildings that were being demolished, their scarred bullet holes and mortar shell histories crumbling to the ground to make way for extravagant residences that only oil rich Saudis could afford.
We heard the call to prayer every morning and every night wherever we were and it was a way for us to assess the time. We gave as much money as we could to thin, crying Syrian and Palestinian children to assuage our guilt. We visited the Hezbollah museum which is something like a war monument and theme park all at once, where we walked through the tunnels of the resistance and saw Israeli tanks with knots in their gun barrels. We stood on ruins that were 9000 years old, ate food made from recipes as old as that too. We talked to people about politics and religion, civil war and survival, refugees and perceptions of the west.
We had just driven out of Beirut, towards the south when the bomb blast hit and killed 43 people – people who loved and laughed and fucked and danced and worked and played and lived, just like us. There was no button on Facebook to push to say we were safe, or that our new friends were safe, because somehow those lives matter less. That country matters less.
My partner and I had decided, against the advice of many, to do an 80km trek across the north of Lebanon. It was incredible. Over 5 days we climbed challenging mountains, from the peaks of which we could glimpse the sea, down into tiny villages where acorn trees, large and leafy, shaded ancient churches only big enough to fit a handful of people, still tended lovingly by local believers. We entered cedar forests that have been standing for thousands of years, and I sat on the branch of a cedar that was estimated to be 2000 years old. I asked it to hold me for a moment, then I held it, wrapped my arms around it, felt it hum, exchanged light with it. We walked into the holy Qadisha valley where hermits reside in twelfth-century monasteries built into the mountainside. (In fact, we met one who took a liking to my girlfriend and said, ‘This might be paradise, but with you it would be heaven.’) We ate apples from abandoned orchards, figs by roman roadsides. We met iPhone-holding shepherds, shotgun-toting hunters who were fierce at first glance with their camouflage gear and big beards but who would break into shy smiles and say in thick accents, ‘Welcome to Lebanon.’ We stayed with local villagers who fed us until we were sure we might actually explode.
All of this, the generosity, the openness, the connection to land, sky, sea, city and still I was an outsider to them. I didn’t belong.
Then we met an amazing couple in Beirut. Two women raising an adopted child in a country where it is illegal to be gay. They are trailblazers. Women who are just living as they feel they should be, carving a path for those in the future. They are brave, courageous. They do it out of love for each other, love for their child and love of Lebanon. On our last day they invited us to their sunny Hamra apartment for breakfast. We were joined by two of their queer female friends – a Palestinian filmmaker and a psychotherapist. We ate manoosh with zartar, haloumi and olives, we drank cup after cup of coffee and we talked about what it is to be queer and Lebanese. We discussed how simply living our lives in this way, whether out or not, was a form of resistance against perceived ideas of who we are and should be within our own cultures but mostly against the continued colonisation and stereotypes perpetuated by the West.
It hit me then. It hit me so hard I experienced a beautiful tearing in my chest, an opening I didn’t even know existed. I listened to these fierce, intelligent, intellectual women each doing their own bit of existing, fighting, resisting from the edges and I felt it. I felt like I belonged. Like this was my tribe. I thought about how I am surrounded by bold queer Arabic women – in Sydney, online, around Australia and the world who have also expressed their feelings of not belonging. I thought about how lucky I was to have those connections, to be sisters with a global group who make the borderlands a place of belonging. It dawned on me that we occupy those fringes together. That we utilise things like art and activism to create a place of belonging within the margins and can revel in what it means to be an outsider who belongs.