-Essay-

CAIRO — As I turn 40, I find myself asking what it means to grow older and what it means to die. I see other people growing older, their lives shifting to accommodate spouses, children, birthday parties, parents-in-law, parent-teacher meetings, spousal gossip, affairs, and divorces. Without these compulsory milestones the only metric I can borrow from that world that did not want us, is that what I have had is longer than what is left. That metric, applied to my life, translates into: I have loved more women than I have left to love. I have known more passion and heartbreaks than I will yet discover in the time that I have left. I have fought more fights asserting my existence than I have left to fight.

I have been fighting for as long as I can remember: Fighting the world that won't have me, fighting my family that won't see me, fighting a notion of a god whose throne shakes in anger when I love, and fighting a self that will not yield to make it easier. I have been fighting out loud and fighting even louder in my own head, when words refused to leave my mouth. My lips binding themselves shut, to preserve my life. My body parts defying me, for the sake of the biological imperative to live. Will we find peace in the moments of our death, or will we still be fighting to assert our existence?

At every confrontation with this world that will not let us be, the contours of who we are rearrange to try and preserve as much of us as they can and still keep us alive. The fight is primordial, it is young, like a child that is learning to say I, that "I" is separate from the parent, that they in their own right are an individual with wants, needs and desires of their own. How can we grow old when the world we live in never stopped making children of us, over and over again?

Time has stopped and the last two decades have been a broken record.

I don't know any old lesbians, except for one in my family whom no one says is. She spends her days alone, drinking, stumbling out of her home into the unforgiving streets of Cairo. When she is berated for her short hair and masculine attire, her lips — unlike mine — eroded by the words they held in and worn down by the cheap Egyptian alcohol she drinks, do not preserve her. Time has stopped and the last two decades have been a broken record that cracks another part of her body, her nose, arms, and shins, with every oscillation, at every confrontation. Two decades ago, her best friend, who lived with her for three decades, left. Our family consoled her more when she lost a dog. How do we grow old when time stops still and the only spaces we exist in are our own imaginations?

We bid farewell to our blood kin early, as soon as we catch the first glimpses of who we are. We lose them slowly, we watch helplessly, enraged that there is no choice we can make, as they drift away from us. If we choose to share ourselves with them, we lose them and they lose us. If we choose to not share ourselves, we lose them, while they still remain, while we still remain for them. We exist around them, empty vesicles, maneuvering our bodies as we pass the salt across the table. The same salt which they have scattered in the corners of their homes to protect them from demons.

The demons that they would no doubt believe we embody had they caught a glimpse of who we are and how we live. I've heard rumors of older lesbian partners, one who recently departed. I did not know her. I have watched as death came for her, the world celebrating every part of her, except how her heart rebelled against everything that it was told to beat for, for whom it could not help but beat for. Who will mourn us as we were, when we have never been?

Walking in Cairo — Photo: Gabriel Ramos

They say loss makes people grow older and we have been losing so much. Our losses transcend our biology and we lose too many long before the doors to their tombs are sealed shut. They say loss makes us resilient and resourceful. We resourcefully build our chosen kin, where being able to know and see each other as we are runs thicker than blood. Perhaps we become accustomed to abrupt endings and loitering partings because of the First Loss. Since then we have experienced lifetimes of chosen families vanishing; we then resiliently and resourcefully replaced them, over and over again. How can we grow old when we are older than our lifetimes twice and three times over, when we have never been young?

How can we describe the nature of how we desire, connect, and try to build lives of partnership with the word love, when this word was never meant to describe us? Our daily existence is flooded with the imagery and practices of normative human relations, reminding us how far we have deviated from everything that was planned for us before we were even here. What does it mean to love when nothing around you calls what you feel love? What words should we use to describe love, when to love and to fight to be are synonymous?

I remained firmly lodged in my youth as I continue to rebel.

Rebelling is owned by the young and I could never imagine my life beyond that as I was. When I first started seeing myself, I half hoped and expected to outgrow myself, find a suitable spouse, have children, give my parents grandchildren, raise them and later see my own grandchildren, but instead I remained firmly lodged in my youth as I continue to rebel. How can we grow old when existing means clinging tightly to that which belongs to the young?

I have only one reference on how to grow old: a bleak linear scale, comparing what has been lived, deducing what is left to live. The scale is a parameter devoid of celebratory commonalities, such as weddings, births, or the simple act of watching our own offspring repeat these milestones. When we do celebrate we either do so in secrecy, or we have hidden parts of ourselves, in exchange for a space in this world, even when it fits awkwardly and uncomfortably.

The seams of keeping ourselves together stretch and our ill-fitting clothes rumple, but when the camera pans out for the family photograph, the défauts in our outfits are hidden by the expert lighting and the staged bodies of the family that surrounds us. If our outfits remain ungainly, we will be cropped out of the photo. They will tell parts of our story and conveniently leave out the parts that constitute who we really were. Just as the world has had no room for us as we are, nor has the passing of time been able to let our stories shape what its passage means. We remain both confined and set free, diasporas of both material and imaginary exiles. We do not grow old, nor were we ever young. We do not go anywhere, because we were never here.


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