Mohamed Irba / محمد (he/him/هو) is an Omani Lebanese cis man who came to Australia in 2007 at 16 to study and stayed for safety. He is an active member of his communities and continues to explore the meaning of belonging in everyday life, as well as the intersections of his identity as a Queer Arab person living with HIV.
Image: © Win Yee Tan, 2016
TITLE NOTE: Taaf / طاف is a word used in Khaleeji Arabic meaning to float but also as a means to brush someone off and not give them attention.
I was 16 years old when I landed in Melbourne airport on a cold winter morning. My new guardian was waiting to pick me up. “Your English is really good!” she said. I cannot remember her name now, but I will never forget her surprise and relief that I could speak. I was bewildered by that; most people spoke English where I came from and sometimes it would be the third or fourth language. It was more than a statement. It came with a history of society that looked at me as uncivilised and barbaric.
I also had not experienced winter before and could not stop shivering. I wish I could hold my younger self now. I know he would never believe we would be here one day, telling our story to help others – like other forcibly displaced queer people sharing stories and inspiring action and change. I would not change any of my life experiences, but I need to stop burying them deep inside where I cannot even remember them: if I do not speak of it, there can be no healing and I want to make sure my lessons are passed on to those who face similar challenges.
From the beginning, I had the responsibilities of the eldest son to carry. My culture puts so much pressure on the eldest son to be successful: study, get a well-regarded job, marry and have many children. The parents are often called Abu and Om <name of eldest son> and it is very shameful if their son is not successful. I was the darkest out of my siblings and I was reminded of it daily. My mother tried to scrub the black out of me every day as a child. It did not work. If she knew about my difference, no doubt she would have tried to scrub that out too. Words like “queer” and “gay” were not in my vocabulary. Though it would be years before I learned them, somehow I embodied them, in the sense of defiance, standing out, being strange and different. The words I did have were “haram”, “deviant”, and “pervert”. I was not “worldly”, but I knew I was different and had to escape.
I had so many questions for my parents and the answer was always, “We do not talk about these things – do not ask again,” with fear in their eyes. I knew that my urges were seen as sinful, so I pushed and pushed until I could not feel them, but there was no end to the racism and colourism I experienced and saw. No end to consumerism and obsession with material things, money and brands. I hated the focus on class and family origins that were so rooted in the culture, and convinced myself I did not belong in my desert home.
There was a fairy-tale across the sea, and I pointed to it: freedom of speech, democracy, minimum wage, queerness, dressing as you please, everything you could want.
Or so I thought, until I found my way here. Initially things were good. I loved the public transport and uncensored internet. Having access to all the knowledge I wanted, and the porn, could not have come at a better time! I surfed websites such as gaydar.com, manjam, and manhunt and indulged the urge I couldn’t even name. It was like opening a big bucket of Maltesers and not being able to stop (which also happens). Despite the pleasure, these experiences still brought on extreme guilt. All the Islamic teachings from my parents and school did not suddenly go away. I felt like the worst person, that I was going to hell for sure. As my Islamic studies teacher taught me: “The fires of hell never stop and you will be tortured by their flames up until the brink of death only to be brought back again and go through the whole experience once more and more and more.”
Yet this did not stop me, and I fell for every (white) boy under the sun. What I did not know is that chasing these fruits would bring so much sorrow. Using these hook-up apps and websites muddied my understanding of what I was feeling, of love itself. What I wanted more than anything was validation, but for every gratifying reply to my messages, there were hundreds of others that went ignored or blocked. Sex became my new hobby. I never had hobbies growing up, as studying was my only purpose. I was to become the successful first-born son that would make my parents proud and that was drilled into me before I was even ten. But sex was so much fun. I kept a record of it all — “43 in the first 30 days,” I would proudly boast! I did it with everyone: old, young, educated, rich, poor, but especially white, as that is what I was taught counted as beautiful. It took 10 years to unlearn this toxic and damaging racism, a product of how I was brought up; a product of white supremacist ideology.
Before I could unlearn the racism that plagued me, I practised it. I experienced it. Words like “sand monkey”, “N*****”, “curry muncher” (yes, I got the pleasure of receiving slurs for Arabs and South Asians too), “terrorist”, “takeaway”, and many more micro aggressions. “What natio are you?” was the most common response I got. Brown skin stopped the white gaze at its place and resulted in a block. And still, I wanted their validation. I wanted a white prince to fulfil all my dreams and I would do anything for them. I was stereotyped, humiliated, and fetishized, yet I played along and laughed. The validation was too strong and I had nothing to fall back on anyway.
I wanted to fit in. I wanted it all. I remember going to my first gay bar called “the X-change” in Melbourne, the energy and excitement. I stared at every person without a shirt on kissing another, or more. I stared at a freedom I’d never imagined. I had fun, took on the Australian culture of over-drinking, danced, partied and met many temporary friends. ‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga and ‘What’s my name’ by Rihanna were on repeat as I washed away the past with binge drinking and blacking out.
At some point, I developed my own way of “coming out”. In order not to be discovered by family and friends back home, I did not talk to them. I deleted them all from social media so as not to accidentally be tagged in a “gay” photo. I wanted it all but would not risk it all. Time to make new friends, I said. No time for homophobia. And by homophobia I meant my own culture. I did everything I could to block it off. Like it never existed. This is Australia.
I stopped using my mother tongue, and wouldn’t use it consistently for at least 10 years, until I even started to lose confidence speaking it. There are displacements forced upon us, and there are displacements we put upon ourselves. What I really needed was real friendship. But it would take another few years to realise that.
My obsession with sex translated to what I thought was love and that was the beginning of many important life lessons. Relationships certainly started off strong and I insisted on moving in quickly (like a good lesbian), even though I did not really know these men. The amount of emotional abuse I took on was astronomical. When I got my permanent residency through a de-facto relationship, his friends judged me and openly joked that I was an “overseas bride”. It reminded me of the white woman at the airport, the condescension. The way she spoke to me back on the first day I landed was that of an exotic being that she could not understand. The way they spoke to me now felt the same, as an Other. I am not an Aussie and would never be, even as a resident – even as a citizen. I laughed it off as I had before. I knew it was wrong but I was so madly in love. 9 years later at the age of 27 I finally ended the fairy-tale and saw reality.
Nothing prepared me for the disillusionment, the sense of rootlessness, the loss of identity, survivor’s guilt, the helplessness when things went wrong. I was so alone and yet did not know it. Sex did not equal friendship. Sex did not equal love. Sex did not equal validation. White Patriarchal Supremacy is in place, and I will never gain its approval. I no longer want it, nor do I want its validation. I do not need it.
I think many of us seek to escape to the West for the fantasy of safety and freedom. We all have our own personal journeys and this is mine. Lately, I have started reconnecting with my culture through language, books, food, music, films, and visits where possible. Finding other Queer Displaced people to connect with has been magical to me. I have also started helping others still in the homeland through online support groups that provide advice and information. Activism is extremely difficult and dangerous as it can result in arrest and prison time, but small actions like providing support through the knowledge gained here or connecting people to others on the ground who provide safe spaces and social connections can help. This is very important to me — through it I’ve regained a sense of my own identity and purpose.
I still am not exactly sure what belonging means. This is my home now and a home should function as a safe haven for its occupants. I like to think I can still bring my culture to it; I do not have to assimilate in a way that erases me. I can belong in a way that I can be proud of. With a long road ahead to acknowledging the history of this land and the oppression First Nations peoples face, I am grateful to be here. I am reminded of this not only by the First Nations peoples but by others whose ancestors laid claim to the land. The colonial oppression continues here and overseas, with our homelands continuing to suffer daily whether it is real warfare or intergenerational and systemic damage caused by colonisation. We need to acknowledge as displaced people here that we are benefitting from stolen lands and colonisation and that, moving forward, any progress has to benefit the First Nations peoples of this land and not come at their expense.
I do not want to beg or claim a space where others are in power and I am not. We are already here. We are to be acknowledged as part of the conversation and, more importantly, as active members of decision making. There is freedom in being here and much to gain, but also loss. Loss does not go away easily. You do not have to disassociate from your cultures to belong. It’s a harder road but one worth taking. Our existence is resistance, but we deserve more than to be seen only in opposition: we can and we will thrive.
I want to stand tall in front of you. I am a voice for others like me everywhere I go, and a changemaker, too. Speaking up is something I struggled with as I sought to fit in and not cause waves. I am not afraid anymore; I look to the ocean, which is not afraid of land, not afraid of itself. Waves that are powerful in unity and move where the sea goes. Waves that heal.
© محمد / Mohamed Irba, 2023