by Yasmeen Adin
While facetiming one of my best friends, he received an email back from one of his favorite novelists: Saleem Haddad. Needless to say, he was overcome with joy because he never thought Haddad would reply to his lengthy email, in which he expressed how much Haddad’s debut novel Guapa meant to him as a gay Arab and Muslim man. He only needed to say these three words -- gay, Arab, and Muslim -- to get me interested. Of course I was interested. How can I not be when the only representation of Muslim and Arab queers I have encountered was stories of how they would end up in hell? I had very high expectations for this 368 page paperback that I had kept hidden in my room. And those 368 pages did not disappoint; I ended up sending Haddad a long email just like my friend had done. Haddad created a person that not only shared my concerns and spoke my language, but had a simliar, close relationship with a homophobic family memeber. By reading about this character, even though it may be fictional, I felt less lonely. I had a sense of reassurance -- a reassurance that one experiences upon seeing oneself represented in the dialogue of novel or in a kiss in a movie. This is one of the many reasons why representation matters.
I longed to re-experience the emotions I had experienced while reading Guapa, but this addiction ceased because there were no sources nor supplies to satisfy it -- stories of people like me are almost nonexistent, suggesting that we are imaginary creatures whose lives cannot make it to the stories of regular, everyday lives, which simultaneously contribute to our dehumanization. But this feeling of alienation was soothed whenever I stumbled upon a poet, novelist, filmmaker, or artist whose art was for and about us. That reprieve of feeling understood was intensified with the anticipation of watching Haddad’s first short film Marco which was first announced on Instagram. All of the impeccably refreshing emotions I felt while reading Guapa will immerse me again I thought, and I could not wait for that to happen again when I booked my ticket for the 23rd annual Arab Film Festival, which featured Marco as the opening film of its Queer Lens Program. I thought of asking someone to come with me, but I did not want to tell anyone. I did not want anyone to come with me. I wanted to have this experience entirely for myself, without worrying about arguing or discussing any of the films afterward. And this is how it went at the Roxie Theatre: myself, a group of curtious white people, and tens of queer Arabs whose existence in that space with me seemed surreal. Similar to me, each one of them was there to witness a story that spoke to them. We were ready for the moment the films started playing, the moment of representation we have been deprived of, dreamt of, and advocated for -- it was finally here. And I was part of it.
Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights activist, summarized the importance of representation when she said:“You can’t be what you can’t see.” The lack of figures similar to me became the norm. This was the case until I saw Marco. The plot progressed until I witnessed one of the most important scenes of film history: two Arab men speaking in Arabic, being vulnerable, singing kissed on the screen. I was awestruck. It took my brain a few moments to fully process and absorb it. I did not realize that I needed that scene until I saw it. It was a moment I have been deprived of, a moment of pure love between two people who looked and loved like me. That scene seemed unnatural at first as if I was not supposed to see it or even experience a moment similar to it. After all, I could not be what I could not see, but a simple, romantic kiss between two lovers in a movie and 368 pages were enough to end my delusion.