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I’m a Fennel for Now

The queer muslim experience, symbolised by a picture of three pieces of fennel, kept one beside each other. they have a light green bulbous body and dark green leaves emerging from the stem.

A cargo train is passing by just behind the window that is the only peephole to the wrong act that I am committing. The train makes me flip out from under him and sit at the edge of the bed.

“What’s wrong?” The white boy asks me.

My erection has just died and my arousal has turned into a heavy feeling of shame, manifesting itself through an anxiety attack.

“Are you thinking of your dad?” the white boy throws the arrow at me and it somehow hits the right spot.

I turn towards him and wonder if my anxious body has involuntarily murmured some of my thoughts to him. I’m shocked that the white boy might have enough comprehension of how hard it might be to exist as a gay boy when you come from a place like Iraq.

I take a moment and smile with embarrassment at these thoughts. In a split second, I remember how I always, maybe wrongly refer to all Westerners as whites, assuming that Middle Easterners are not.

In the same split second as well, my brain justifies my shock at his question. It tells me that the last few boys that I had dated or hooked up with here in the UK seemed to share the same luxury of waking up in a world where being gay is written in the stars, where these boys’ greatest concern is to get the perfect body, the perfect lifestyle, and the perfect boyfriend.

But that’s not enough because the need to also share it with the world “#instagay #instacouple #instamasculine #gay couple”, and so on and so forth, has to be a regular act in most relationships.

I tell myself that this is their choice, but my brain also reminds me that the problem is that these boys are quick to lose interest once they realise they can’t hashtag our relationship, when they realise that I’m not out.

“You are not out?” one of the boys asked me. I froze there with a trembling smile realising that this boy was unable to understand my position and I also wondered what being out meant to him.

And worse, I have to witness the vanity of the requirement to validate a relationship on social media, especially for gay couples who have to hashtag their relationship to the world. The toxic need for visibility and being ‘out’ means that an exclusive club of privileged people is created, making people in my position outcasts.

I’m in a country where I thought I wouldn’t have to stage my sexuality but here I’m being asked to perform an act of visibility and be forced to succumb to a discourse of being ‘out’, whatever that means.

And while I’m about to think that these thoughts are not the stars of tonight’s episode of conflicted identities, a train passes by and interrupts not only my thoughts but the words of the white boy next to me whose hesitant hand has already reached out to touch the edge of my shoulder. We wait for the train to pass; it takes long enough to make us fidgety, so the boy goes on with what he wants to say…

“My dad used to call me a finocchio which means faggot in Italian. He always went on criticising my petite body and my sexuality. Most of the time I feel the shades of his disapproval in the way I act. Sometimes I want to tweak my eyebrows and dad stands at the corner of the mirror. I understand what it means to try to exist in a skin that is sewed to fit your dad’s vision, or the village’s, or even your own beliefs.”

Another train passes by; that seems to be the cue for me to talk. My anxiety seems to peter out and a nakedness of what I told myself to never reveal to my next potential boyfriend, dresses the moment.

I go on explaining to him that I never wanted to have to talk to him about it, that I had to rehearse the act of being a carefree gay boy which seems to be failing miserably.

I tell him that the mere fact of being under him suffocates me.

I tell him that laying down next to him is wrong.

I tell him that I need to always be on top.

I tell him that I can’t submit.

I tell him that I want to do the opposite, but I just can’t.

And although a train doesn’t pass by, the white boy hijacks the moment and I feel angry because I wanted to finish my rant.

“So is it your dad, your religion, your society?” Like a social coach, he is trying to help me find the answer by asking a question.

“I think it’s a mix of things and I try to let go of all of this but it seems to never go away. I act normally and I fall for a boy, but when things start to become physical and real, an outer army of norms invades the streets within me, it takes over, and I start to mess things up. I can never go ‘submissive’ in bed because this is not manly enough, but also being gay is the same…I just can’t believe that these norms sneak into bed with me. This reaches into not just my existential identity, but also the physicality of it.”

Our teeth clench at the sound of the screech of the train outside the window, but this time I don’t hand over the microphone…I go on, “I don’t know. It’s just that most of the time I think of the fact that I’m not a Westerner, that I’m a Kurdish Muslim, that my people suffered and are still suffering, that this suffering needs real men, men who don’t sleep with men. All of this makes me want to not be me, but worse, it makes me ruin any chance for happiness, it makes me hate myself. It makes me feel disgusted and I’m always scared to share all of this with boys because I’m afraid to be seen as a complicated case. I’m afraid because I bring to bed more than just one soul of a scared conflicted boy. I’m bringing to bed a whole army that not only runs the streets within me but also spills out over my body and the body of the boy next to me.”

Now I can see the boy sitting there, probably waiting for a train to pass by so it would give him more time to prepare an answer. A dying ember of my earlier anxiety attack flames back up. I am scared that I have revealed too much, that I have scared him off. I’m thinking that I’m a complicated case that can’t be hashtagged onto the stage of all the gay people who need to perform their sexuality with extra visibility. I am thinking that I’m an unsolved case of sickness, that I’m filthy and sinful, that I’m disgusting, that anything that happens to me is Karma for not being straight, I’m thinking that anything bad that happens to me is because God doesn’t approve, that the army within doesn’t approve, that the law of manhood doesn’t approve.

I feel nauseated and I run to the toilet to try to vomit out all these heavy, uncontrolled yet well-aimed missiles of thoughts. I wish I could flush it all away.

I come back to the room and the boy is standing; his body language is like an embrace.

“Let me tell you this, I don’t know how to make you feel better. I also don’t want to try to fix you……I mean, not that you need fixing, but the way you think might be just a part of you that you need to not fight but try to embrace. I don’t want to promise you anything, but all I can say is that I understand, I really do understand, and this doesn’t scare me.”

“But I am afraid I will start being obnoxious, complicated, and overwhelming because I simply can’t be at peace with myself because I can’t act myself,” I bark at him.

“I will slap you then and ask you to talk to me.”

The boy kisses me on the forehead and says to me,“By the way,  finocchio in Italian also means fennel, so it seems that we are also a flavourful vegetable, or at least this is how I like to think about us.”

I smile and I tell myself to be a fennel for now, until my army of the ‘outers’ within decides to act up again.

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