Living among the locals

An Epiphany in the land of plenty

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Far away from home, I walked down a nameless street, in and out of nameless shops, buying products I never believed in. Weeks after meaningful words have left me. Just when I needed them the most.

I’ve always been a talker, playing with words until they succumbed to my will. But now they have abandoned me. So did my healthy appetite and peaceful sleep.

Abandoned. Left to my own devices. I remain in the dark. Here I am where kids attend music classes after school. Drinking clean water from the tab, long after the sewage have left my kidneys. Eating clean food with a stomach of steal that can digest stones. Rolling my tobacco and counting my Euros.

Is this what life is all about? Is this what my fellow Arabs have crossed the Mediterranean for? All the way from the land where our ancestors built sky-high Pyramids and dug deep canals.

I roamed the streets of Freiburg, a city not as white as I had thought. With new friends that I never thought I would ever meet. I yearned to get lost in the crowds in big streets where no one knows me. I missed the home that I no longer recognise.

And so I walked down that nameless street, struggling to catch the words that have left me. Suddenly, they slip out of my lips. Words that capture a realisation so strong that captivated my entire existence for several years.

It all started with you back in 2012, but now you are a nameless character in an unknown chapter. You opened the books for me and told me to read.

Simon de Beauvoir and John Sartre. The relationship that she described as the biggest achievement of her life. Crazy sex, crazy love, and crazy heartbreak.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” she said.

A woman? Is that what I have become?

And now, so many years later, those words come out of my lips on that nameless street. Words I never used before. I hadn’t even noticed them when I said them.

Until I revisited Michel Foucault. I shut the windows and the doors. Deactivated my Facebook and went off the radar. Spent four days with him; ate with him, slept with him, talked with him, all the while meticulously rolling my tobacco.

“It is through sex — in fact, an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality — that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility (seeing that it is both the hidden aspect and the generative principle of meaning), to the whole of his body (since it is a real and threatened part of it, while symbolically constituting the whole), to his identity (since it joins the force of a drive to the singularity of a history),” he told me.

“What about the snowy days of Chuar Qurna? The massacre that my mother survived while I slept soundly in her arms? Where is this sleep now? And the war that stripped my father of his soul? What about my young days in those dusty streets by the Pyramids, jumping from balcony to balcony? What about that grey street by the Faisaliah? And those pristine beaches and shiny Maseratis of the City of Gold? What about Mirissa and the bright full moons of Poya?” I said as it suddenly dawned on me.

I broke the gender within me. I now know that my realities are a series of social constructs and that my sexuality is man-made. But what about me? Is this what Sri Ramana meant by Self Enquiry?

Here I am, playing “colored” in Freiburg after I have played “white” in Sri Lanka. With a grim past far behind, revisiting Foucault. Reading words that ignited my passion. Words that make me reconstruct my realities and recall my past with a new pair of eyes. You opened those books for me and now I can’t close them. The realisation that I have struggled with for so long started boiling up. And, along with Foucault, I revisited those words that slipped out of my lips on that nameless street.

“This color would look so good on you,” my friend said.

“But this is too girly. I prefer more gender neutral colors,” I said.

I had never even used those words before. I knew I felt heavy ticking “female” on those forms I had to fill in the airport. I knew I sympathised more with the LGBTQ struggle than I did with women’s struggles, but couldn’t explain why I use “we” and “us” when I’m talking about LGBTQ communities. I knew I called the men in my life partners and not boyfriends. I knew that I liked men but didn’t feel like a “straight woman”. But I didn’t know those words. Gender neutral.

The books that you opened my mind for have never left me. The Second Sex. Testo Junkie. Writing on the Body. The Anthropology of Menstruation. Modon El Melh. Ya Tale’ El Shagara. ‘Azazil. And many more.

Yasmin Helal

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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