Myriam Bestowrous (33)
Los Angeles, California
If you had one word to explain your relationship with Coptic identity, what would it be?
Up/rooted. An upside-down, rootless tree is the image in my head. I feel like I’m not rooted in it because of mixedness and because I’m not in Egypt. I find myself often realizing that you can’t really be removed from what you are though, right? That’s just a stupid frontal lobe illusion, like, “Oh haha, I’m not really what I am.” No that’s immutable, what you do with it I think is the important thing.
Have you always felt like this?
I fought so hard to belong. I was obsessed with it. I thought that identity meant that I had to reject certain parts of myself, and only express one part in order to be truly accepted by anyone. I didn’t understand people’s insecurity with me for a long time; and I realized that a lot of that was about me being more than one thing; they didn’t really trust me. My dad refused to teach us Arabic--well I should say that the reason he said he wouldn’t teach us Arabic was because, “Arabic is not our language.” Who knows if that was really the reason he didn’t teach us, but I always felt like I was looking at a group of people in a room with glass walls from the outside and I didn’t have the key to get in. All I’ve ever wanted was to join everyone else, to be a part of the group. And then I realized that fighting so hard to belong was like bending myself in uncomfortable and painful ways just to fit in, so then I ended up rejecting all of it.
Could you clarify what you think your dad meant when he said, “Arabic is not our language”?
He was referring to Arabic as it not being the original language in Egypt. We can call him an Egyptian nationalist, or more accurately probably, he was a Coptic nationalist. There are people, like my dad, whom I’ve heard say similar things, particularly many Coptic people in Egypt feel this way. There’s a lot of, “This is our land, we were here first” sort of thing, but with the history of Egypt, and the history of colonialism in North Africa, it’s tricky. Yes the Arabs were an empire, but the Coptic language exists because of the Macedonian and Greek empires, so it’s like where are we drawing these lines? But anyway, my dad would say, “If you’re going to learn a language, learn Coptic.” There was absolutely anti-Arab sentiment there.
Tell me about being mixed a little bit more. Tell me about your Italian half.
I’ve been thinking about that part a lot lately. I’ve realized that, in a way, my mother is mixed too. After dad died, my mom and I were traveling in Italy and I heard a lot of stories about her parents and how she was raised in the village. My grandfather was from Northern Italy, and Nonna was from Calabria.They called her il calabrese, which is basically calling her “the darky.” Apparently, everyone was afraid of my Nonna, I mean, rightfully so, she was terrifying. That woman saw some shit. In Southern Italy, where she was from, it’s totally different; there's a much deeper, richer history of trade, integration, immigration, migration. I’ve convinced myself, without proof mind you, that Nonna was descended from pirates. But anyway, the only connection I had with Italy growing up was Nonna living with us until I was in junior high: Nonna making food, Nonna cursing in Italian, Nonna speaking broken English. Besides her, I didn’t live near either of my parent’s families, but we went to a Coptic church, so I ended up spending more time with Egyptians than with Italians. Italian culture felt very distant and much less tangible for me growing up. As I got older, I got this notion that I’m not only mixed, but I’m a mix of white and brown. Because Middle Easterners aren’t seen, by census standards anyway, as brown (societally they sure are), brown-ness seemed moveable in a way. All I can say about that is...Italians are wild. When it comes down to it, I typically just say that I’m Mediterranean; there are a lot of cultural similarities among all Mediterraneans. I don’t know if it has everything to do with the Sea perse, but every country that shares that coast has something in common.
I know you spent many years living abroad, could you tell me about your decision to live in the region?
I went to figure it out. In college, all of a sudden, I had to be something. At the time, the answers that I had didn’t feel sufficient, and it triggered an identity crisis. I was determined to figure that question out; what was I? I told myself that anthropology would give me the answer, anthropology was going to solve the problem of my mixedness. I just wrote a piece about this, how I felt like I could bifurcate myself and turn the white piece toward the brown piece and ask myself, “Why?” I felt like I had pieces within me that felt so outside of my own experiences, that I could just step outside of it all, to study myself and my people as if I didn’t belong to them. This came to a head when I moved to Egypt. There were times when cousins or friends would say that they were surprised that I wasn’t from there, that I blended in so well. But this is a thing that people say when you’re doing something that they approve of. And yes, I was doing everything possible to be approved of in Egypt because I needed to know I was Egyptian. I needed it to be confirmed by other people because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t think I was allowed to be it, I had to prove it. But at the same time, walking down the street was a strange game. One day, I’d be seen as a local like everyone else. On the next, I’d be an obvious foreigner, a target for harassment. Although every non-male body is subject to harassment on the street, I would find myself obsessing about why it happened to me. Was it because I wasn’t wearing a headdress? Was it the way I walked? The way I looked? Is my skin lighter after spending a lot of time indoors? I mean, I endlessly obsessed over figuring out the thing that signaled to someone else that I wasn’t a local. I think the part that frustrated me so much about that was the fact that it wasn’t up to me how I would be seen. That took some time for me to accept, but Egypt was where I had the biggest leaps forward. Going to the American University and working in different museums like The Egyptian Museum and the Coptic Museum, I interacted with folks on my own, without the influence of family. I didn’t live with family, and this helped me make my own relationship with Cairo; this was immensely important to me. Do you know that saying, “The stranger is blind?” The proverb, Alghareeb a3ma Walaw kan baseer. That was my guiding principle; it means that I am not going to be able to know what I can’t see. It amazed me how feminist nuns are, and they just are even if they’d never accept the label. I accepted, while riding in a car to Alexandria with my mentor that I was a feminist too. Egypt was where I realized I was queer.
Were these interactions with nuns something that was part of your studies, or were they self-directed explorations?
My aunt, my dad’s sister, is a nun. There were family visits on the first Friday of every month to her monastery. I owe my final queer awakening to an attraction to a female professor at AUC, rather than the nuns. For me, the realization was quiet and subtle. It’s always the professor isn’t it?
Tell me more about the language you use to talk about your gender and sexuality, and how living in Egypt at that time influenced these terms and identities.
I identify as queer: it captures both being non-binary and my sexuality. I am fine with any respectful pronoun, since I don’t feel any of them quite capture what I am. I’m attracted to people, not their packaging. I didn’t hear the word queer until after I’d had a soft coming out, and I figured, “Oh ya, that’s a lot simpler than my three-paragraph explanation, I’ll use that.” Since I was coming into my own without a queer community, I was figuring these things out on my own. I never felt comfortable joining a community and asking for acceptance. I just didn’t trust it because of my experience with mixedness and trying to be a part of the Coptic community. I felt like if I asked for permission, then I was going to burn bridges somehow. In groups of queer people, it seemed to me that I had a way of asking questions that would make people uncomfortable. People in those spaces seemed to be so protective and defensive, understandably. I don’t disparage anyone that, especially queer people, I just never felt like there was a space for me. So I collected bits and pieces of people that I met along the way, I’d read things and absorb them on my own. While it doesn’t really make me sad that this is the way it happened, it makes me feel it's important that those spaces are open to everyone, that I make a space for other queer people.
Do you still feel that way about queer spaces and groups?
It’s less about specific aspects of people, I’m just suspicious of people. Particularly in groups; with awareness, or a lack of awareness, people can be dangerous. It doesn’t scare me necessarily because I can tell the difference now between someone who is uncomfortable with themselves and me being uncomfortable with them being uncomfortable with themselves. That makes a huge difference to me. When I was in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan (my time in lite imperialism haha) there were a few volunteers that were queer, some were out, some were not. By that time in my life I had an understanding of myself, though queer was not the word I was using yet; I had an understanding of myself as being part of that community. I remember these volunteers would say that they were gay first, then follow it up with their name and where they were from. Like “Hi! I’m gay,” all up in there with the rest and I remember thinking, “This is cool, but, I don’t know how to do that.” Plus, we were in a conservative, newly Muslim-led country, because Azerbijan was under the Soviet Union, practicing religion there was illegal until the 90s. It wasn’t about religion, but as a womxn or someone on the female spectrum from a foreign country, people instilled a lot of caution in us. For example, if you were seen drinking or laughing in the street, we were told to expect that people wouldn’t trust us; that we were behaving in an “unbecoming” manner. Whether or not this was the culture of that country or if it was the Peace Corps’ interpretation didn’t really matter. The gender dynamics were constantly at play, and queer people were definitely encouraged to downplay themselves; their concerns were ignored and sometimes not considered.
It sounds like a tricky environment to navigate on your own. Can you tell me more?
I think as a first generation child, and a child of immigrant parents, the concepts of hiding and shame were pretty familiar. I was used to not dealing with so many things, and just tossing them to the backburner. I was used to operating under a veil of secrecy. By the time I was in Azerbaijan, I was like, “Ya, no big deal. I know how to do this; I’m gonna live my life in secret, it’s fine.” It was easy for me, but it’s only been as I got older that I asked myself why I was living my life in so much shame. I knew that being queer wasn’t something that I was ashamed of. And even though I tell myself I don’t think these things are shameful, when I go back to Egypt, I’m confronted with the fact that I am still indeed living with a lot of shame. I’ve grown a lot since the Peace Corps and living in Egypt in my 20s, but going back in more recent years, even after having done grad school and working in a variety of different jobs, I noticed that all of that growth seemed to go away. In Egypt, I immediately reverted into trying to fit into a heteronormative role.
Do you have a sense as to why that might be the case?
Even as a child, my internal voice has always said, “Don’t attract attention to yourself, you attract enough attention as it is.” It has always been in the back of my mind, and I know I’ve interalized, “Don’t stand out, keep your head down, don’t give anything away, do what is expected of you, you can find time to do what you really want when you’re in private.” Doing what is expected of you all the time makes it very difficult to understand what you actually want to do for yourself. Then it takes years to peel that behavior away. Going back to Egypt for a second time, I felt like I didn’t strive to belong anymore, so it was more obvious to me how much bending I was doing. Also, I wasn’t on my own like I was in my 20s. I was spending significantly more time with family, so smaller patterns became more obvious, and I didn’t really have as much of an escape.
Can you give me a quick timeline of the places you’ve lived?
I lived in Egypt from 2006-2007, then I was in Azerbaijan for the Peace Corps 2009- 2011, NYC in 2012, then I made my way to Thailand right before moving back to Egypt, where I was for the 2016 election up until recently. I’m based in Los Angeles now.
Could you tell me a little more about how it was living in Egypt the second time, especially around the 2016 election?
Getting most people to talk about politics before January 2011 was like pulling teeth. Some people were always involved, and talking about the need for reform; there was definitely an underground movement in Egypt for a long time, but generally people were afraid to talk, let alone protest. Now though, everyone has an opinion. These opinions are loud and aggressive, and I personally believe that most, if not all, people are suffering from some sort of PTSD because everyone has witnessed violence or lost someone to violence. Everyone has that story; families are divided by opposing political opinion. There’s a collective depression, and it affects people in different ways, depending on how they see January 25th and later taking down Morsi, who is now no longer with us. Plus, people are older now. Notions of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and so many other facets of culture can get more rigid with time. Even if they don’t like these ideas, as people get older sometimes old patterns of thinking resurface. I hope that I will not be that way when I’m older, but I’ve seen this with family members and other people that I know; it just reasserts itself. Somehow you end up renegotiating everything you’ve been taught as a child, you’re suddenly confronted with parts of your personality that remind you of your parent’s personality, “Do I become them or do I become something new?” This is a question that shifts with age, I think. The plan was always to go to Egypt for Christmas after dad died in 2014 because I needed to see everybody, but I decided to go early because I was in a terrible job situation in Thailand. My gut reaction was, “I need to get out of here, I have nowhere to go, I’ll just go to my family.” But just before I was supposed to leave Bangkok, I had this realization of, “Oh fuck, I can’t be myself there, what am I doing?” You know as a foreigner in Bangkok, I was able to live pretty much however I wanted. But I convinced myself that it was okay, that I just needed to recover and that I needed to be with people that cared about me while I thought about next steps. But it was eye opening, to say the least, because I realized that I was less okay than I thought I was. It didn’t help that nobody was okay over there: they were not equipped to look after me or be okay with how comfortable I was taking the bus, for example. And not just the microbus, The Public Bus. They expected me to call the entire family for checkpoints along the way so they could make sure that I was still alive. Of course there’s always danger, though I can’t say with certainty if there is more or less danger on the streets of Cairo than anywhere else. Some places are always dangerous because of sexism, imperialism, classism, racism and other bullshit. No one can hide from any of that forever.
How did these daily experiences influence your goals of healing and recharging with your family?
Anytime I’d tell them about my terrible experiences in my work environment or with my boss, they’d basically just respond with a cavalier, “Ya, so? That’s life.” And while most of the time I’d have the presence of mind to respond with a, “Yes, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” it would get to me sometimes that they don’t have as many choices as I did. Without kids or a partner, I could move around with more freedom, I could switch jobs if I wanted to. It’s not like they could ever think, “Oh this boss is terrible, this boss is always on my case, this boss calls me at all hours of the day, this boss verbally and physically abuses me, maybe I will just leave…” They can’t. And they didn’t understand why I couldn’t just accept that reality. I ended up internalizing those perspectives, and it’s why I ended up staying in Egypt for so long ironically. I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not strong enough to handle this bullshit?”
What I didn’t expect was that I would ever be able to talk about my queerness with anyone from my Egyptian side. I had pretty much determined that would be unsafe. There were even times where I’d freak out and imagine that if anyone found out, I wouldn’t be allowed around my nieces and nephews, that I’d be seen as some kind of virus, and that I’d be cut off from everyone--and that terrified me. There had been some tension in my family that existed prior to me arriving, but sometimes when there are problems and a new person comes in, tensions rise and that new person is blamed. I still don’t understand why an unmarried womxn in her thirties is so threatening to people. Honestly, it would be so much better if everyone didn’t see me as a womxn entirely! But people see a package, and being in this packaging, people assume certain things about my “usefulness” or my “value” or my “threat” because, depending on what color our skin is and what our bodies look like, we’re told that there’s not enough space for us, so we end up fighting for space don’t we? Most of the time I wanted to tell people, “Don’t think of me like a womxn, I’m not like that and I am not those things.” But that’s the struggle of gender, right? I wanted to tell them, “Gender is nonsense!” Because people can’t see how I see myself, they can’t see who lives in my mind. They just see my body, make their own assumptions, and then judge me. All I ever wanted to say to them was, “Listen, this is who I am, I am not a threat to anybody.” But if I said that then I’d be more threatening-- basically I was fucked.
My mom, brother, and some of my other family members have known that I’m queer for many years, yet I couldn’t give my dad the chance to surprise me. I couldn’t risk the chance of him betraying me in that way; I couldn’t risk it, and I never did. There was an incident with a cousin of my father’s when I was living in New York, before moving to Thailand. My roommate cut my hair very short, and I posted it on Facebook. This cousin reposted it and made a comment, or rather, a crass joke, about Ireland just legalizing gay marriage. I confronted him and asked what that joke was all about, and he couldn’t give me a good answer. I told him, “I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but I don’t appreciate it. You don’t have that kind of relationship with me.” He took it down, but I could tell he was making an assumption about me, though he wasn’t willing to ask me the question or talk to me about it. He traveled to Egypt while I was there, so at some point I decided to confront him about it in person because there didn’t seem to be a way to move forward with that relationship without having a conversation. So, we went to some Americanish bar, those weird ones that they have in Maadi, and I bought him a tower of beer and I made him ask me. And by that I mean I told him, “You want to ask me if I’m gay.” When it came to discussing my sexuality and my queerness, or the shape of it, the experience of it, me going through it as a person, he didn’t want to know any of it. He just backed off. And though I thought it went down pretty well, in later conversations I realized that he didn’t actually engage with it. After that, I expected him to do the work for me, to gossip and tell as many people in the family as he wanted to, I didn’t care anymore. I thought that the people who want to understand me will come to me. Driving back with my cousin that night, I was surprised to have a really meaningful conversation with them. I didn’t expect anyone from the family to know me in that way, or be willing to know all sides of me, so that was really really meaningful to me. And that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t willing to sit down my dad’s cousin and say, “Look! What do you want to know, let’s talk about it. I’d prefer to talk about it instead of you being an asshole.”
Did you continue to have other meaningful conversations with additional family members after that?
There was one other cousin that I talked with, and I kind of just came out to her. My cousin pulled back into that same place of, “Okay, so what does that mean? No I don’t accept this. I accept you but not this.” So I also pulled back and decided not to really deeply explain it; I just let her sit with it and decided not to put restrictions on her either. I figured that she can do whatever she wanted with that information, I just didn’t want to live with shame anymore. I don’t want to make it sound like if you don’t tell someone, it means your secret is shameful, but in my specific case, I didn’t want to worry about belonging to Egypt anymore. I realized that I was learning specific lessons from Egypt only, and the growth I was able to experience there had reached a plateau. Will I go back? For sure. But that feeling, that need to belong, is gone and I will be accepted on my own terms, as much as I’m untraining my mind to be accepted under other people’s terms. That will be a life-long unlearning.
Does it feel like you’ve closed the chapter with these cousins that you’ve come out to, or is there still some room for growth?
You know, who would have thought I could be all of myself? I didn’t know I could be; it only took a couple decades. Besides my dad’s cousin, no one else cited religious doctrine when disagreeing with my queerness. For multiple reasons I had decided not to tell my dad. We were all in Egypt at the same time for a cousin's wedding. I remember packing my bag when I heard some yelling; I entered the living room to find my brother and my father in a screaming match over the rights of gay people. The bible was being yielded as a weapon, there were hands doing threatening things, my mom was there just sort of distant, and my uncle turned to me and said, “I think your brother is confusing gay rights with civil rights, the rights of black people, he is confused.” And I just wanted to scream. I thought about coming out right then and there, “Let me give you all a real example to deal with.” But seeing how everyone wanted to yell and prove a point, their own point, it felt denigrating to hear them talk about who’s going to hell and who’s going to heaven. I knew it wasn’t my way. I’m not going to talk about who I am in order to prove a point, because it didn’t feel like it was about proving a point for me. I felt like, “This was my life.” My mom didn’t know it yet, my brother didn’t either--no one did. I don’t know, it didn’t make me feel safer--even though it seemed that I had an ally in the room. It didn’t feel safe, and it made me more sure that I wouldn’t be accepted by the people that I thought loved me the most.
Your experience is pretty unique in that you live at several different intersections. Do you feel any resolve about the Coptic piece?
At this point in my life, that part of my identity is pretty comfortable. I feel like being Coptic, queer, and mixed are all synonymous. It’s too old a thing for anyone to assume that Coptic culture has looked just one way for its entire history, or it has been one way the whole time. Egyptian history is ancient, there are things we don’t learn about pre-Nilotic culture or the Kushite (Nubian) pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty. I think queer people have been here the whole time, people need to accept it and make space for it because they can’t just keep pretending that we’re not here. They know. Seriously, gedos and tetas and someone’s baba know queer people on an individual basis. They’ve accepted it too, but they just don’t want to talk about it with each other. The pope is never going to say a good goddamn thing about it ever. It’s just a simple matter of accepting what you already see and being willing to understand. Whomever is willing enough, safe enough, privileged enough to be visible will make it easier for others who feel like they can’t be. And honestly, if you asked me about this a year or two ago, I probably wouldn’t have had this perspective. Nah, no way. Also, I’m not here to call out monastic culture to say it’s the gay haven, I’m just saying Egypt is the place where they invented monastism, or so we like to say. What greater example of fleeing the gender binary do you have? Of fleeing capitalism? I can’t assume a sexuality on an entire group of people, but that’s queer as fuck. Isn’t queerness not only what we do with our bodies, but also what we do with our minds? It’s how you see yourself, how you see other people, and how you love people. In Egypt, homosexuality has been practiced by so many tribes and cultures, like the Bedouins, since ancient times up until the present. Emperors went there for lovers (that’s a whole other story), they’ve memorialized them in statues; it’s just a matter of forgetting what you know or what our grandparents refused to acknowledge. I think it’s safer for some people to deal if they think of the world like this; if the world is determined a certain way, then things aren’t shaky and you are not responsible for your choices nor do you have to think about things too deeply. Personally I find it more comforting that everything is changeable and everything is mutable. Nothing is new.
You know, I never thought I’d be in this situation, telling my story. How could I imagine that this platform would even exist? I have to say, it is timely, and we are brave and beautiful.
If you had to go back in time, what would you tell 15 year old Myriam?
I’d tell her, “Take your time.” Listen, none of these realizations came to me easily. If you have the privilege of space and time, take it. Be patient, love yourself, especially when you feel like you fall short. That’s definitely something that’s big for me--it always will be. We are not all born queerly confident. I’m still getting there, and so will you. If you don’t have the privilege of space or time, you need to find support. Find a book, a youth center, PFLAG group, GSA, chat room, Tumblr, I don’t know anything for fucks sake. Or maybe just hop in a time machine and come find me at The Turn Left; I will always listen.
Tell me more about your organization, The Turn Left.
The Turn Left is a forum for discussing ideas that better integrate the economy, society, and environment. The idea is to build on that space by having conversations with people from all different walks of life, to find ways for those three things to compliment each other better. Then, eventually, we’d do those things in practice, and sustain ourselves instead of asking other people for money. The idea is for us to be a closed loop example of what it means to be a whole world instead of sacrificing many for the growth of some. We published a piece by Salma Mustapha Khalil called, “A Woman’s Place,” which is about public space in Cairo and how women and people on the feminine spectrum are limited in their access to it. This was written in response to an incident a few years back when a woman who recorded a man accosting her was shamed for exposing the harassment.
Has being queer influenced this project?
Sandra, the person who I started this with, and I met in Cairo. She had the idea years later, and came to me with it, and we realized that this is how we would keep ourselves sane, motivated, and grounded. The name came to me because I had just read This Bridge Called My Back, where Gloria Anzaldúa talks about the left-handed world, the world of possibility, the created space outside of conflicts. We don’t want The Turn Left to be an exercise in thinking about how to dismantle things, we want it to focus on how to build new things, a perspective Tannia Esparza showed us when she shared her piece. How do we build a world that teaches people to see others as they’d like to be seen? How do we build a world that isn’t divided by 7 billion different types of binaries? I’m disturbed by how much conversations come to, “Ya things are terrible and there’s nothing we can do about it!” How do we imagine beyond that? How do we not recreate hierarchies? How do we not bring the same bullshit from heteroland into queerland? How do we build that for ourselves and for those who come after us?
How can people find The Turn Left and The Desert Salon?
Find us at www.theturnleft.org. We’re open to submissions. We’re also @tturnleft on Twitter. Take a look at the people we’ve talked to and at some of the discussions that we’ve had to see if you’d like to contribute. Also, we have our Desert Salon now--it’s a monthly radical discussion space where we learn together. We discuss everything from the imperialist/capitalist/heteropatriarchy to local water prices. One of the things that we hope is to build a community that takes joy in and relies upon one another. We want to help build lasting relationships where folks can exchange ideas like in the salons of old; creative, political, or otherwise. It’s just a simple act of making a physical space that’s open, safe, and reliable. For now, we’re located in the Antelope Valley in California, but I’m hoping to grow it eventually.
I’m curious, have Coptic people taken notice?
I dream and hope to have them in it. I know that people are curious, yet tentative. This is the way I’m seeing myself and the Coptic community now: the drawbridge is down. I’m not running away from anyone anymore, I’m not rejecting where I came from or who I am. Come find me, I’m here. I’ll be here, and I accept that people might come to me in their own time, as I come into myself in mine.