Why Wasn’t I An Emergency Case?

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When teta passed away in February, my father and I hadn’t spoken to each other for over two years. My relationship with him had always been complicated, him being the proud, sensitive, and eccentric man that he is, and me being the dignified and stubborn nerdy kid with a bent for justice at home and beyond. Neither of us had understood what it really meant for me to be growing up here and for him to still be surviving day after day in the harsh city that is Beirut. We lived in the same small apartment with the rest of the family, and for the longest time I gave him the silent treatment, and he only addressed me to insult me when he felt angry. Shaken, I usually pretended he wasn’t there.

Had I written this last year, I would have said that I felt broken, that I had an abusive relationship with my father, that I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, and that I spent at least ten minutes by the elevator almost every night with a twenty-six year old sign, happy hearts make happy homes, hanging above our entrance and staring at me. I spent every one of those tired seconds feeling anxious, summing up the courage to unlock that front door and dart straight into the bedroom I share with my brother.

I cannot even begin to express the process I’ve gone through with my father over the past twelve years in one post. I cannot even describe the past two years or the past six months. What I can say is that I stayed home, and distanced myself when I needed boundaries to protect myself.

When I left home for a few weeks last year, it was after a series of violent encounters I had with my father. I could barely afford that small room which friends and I had recently rented together for some breathing space. I spent my days at Meem, and my evenings with the Mug Girl and Abdo el RaQissa, sometimes joined by Shant and others, projecting movies on a white wall, channeling our exhaustions through conversation, a couple of drinks and a smoke, until some of us went home, and the rest passed out by dawn. When I needed to get clothes from home, I always dragged Abdo el RaQissa along in the mornings when no one was home. He made me feel safer. I felt at my most vulnerable, like home was stripped away from me. I called my mother every single day. I saw her every day, even if I had to drag her out of work to have a cup of coffee with me. I came to understand that somewhere very raw, somewhere very deep inside of me, I felt that I too was entitled to a supportive and loving family, I too was entitled to a home. I went back to claim that family, and to claim that home.

For a while I thought, if only my father would see a therapist, our lives would be much better. He’d be normal. But he didn’t believe in modern medicine; we could barely get him to take his diabetes pills. “نام بكير و فيق بكير و شوف الصحة كيف بتصير” he would repeat to us when my brother and I were children. He often spoke of battles that were thousands of years old as if they happened yesterday, as if they were reflections of the wars happening today. He carried the world’s heavy history on his frail translucent back for the world to see. But was anyone looking? Was anyone ever listening? He was slowly starting to make more sense to me than any other ordinary person.

My father shouldn’t have to be medicated to be able to cope with life. He is actually the most genuine and perceptive person I know. His heart is on his sleeve and he will call you out on your bullshit no matter who you are. He is still the same man who fell in love in the seventies, when he was only thirteen – the only boy at the birthday party wearing a suit – and who waited until he was twenty-seven for his lover, my mother, to come around. He is the same man who left our building’s underground shelter in the late eighties and darted into my bedroom because I missed my slippers. I wonder if happy hearts make happy homes also stared at him that day. My earliest and most vivid memory of the civil war. The anxiety that stems from wondering whether or not your  father would ever come back with your slippers.

My father is not a case. He too is entitled to a stronger support system. And who else did he have but us four? I knew I didn’t want to ‘apologize’ to my father for not speaking to him for over two years. I did what I had to do and I didn’t feel sorry for it. So I waited. When his mother passed away, my teta, we cried together. I was finally able to contain this intense and delicate person that is my father. For the past few months, we’ve been having coffee every morning together in the kitchen and sometimes black tea in the afternoons on the balcony. We have a silent agreement: I make the coffee, he makes the tea.

Most likely, over a year ago, I might have not even written about any of this. I might have busied myself with the sense of urgency that naturally accompanies Meem’s coordination: to give support where needed. I remember many evenings where I could have come to Meem, not as a coordinator, but as an emergency case.

Why wasn’t I an emergency case?

Over the years, I’ve seen us intervene in people’s lives, always with the best intentions at heart. We spend hours on the phone when one of us is in distress. We comfort each other’s parents, they see that their children are not alone. We help one another pack when home feels unsafe. We even borrow each other’s socks sometimes. We take our binders off and together smile at the raw pain that sometimes hides underneath. We sleep on each other’s couches and share our mothers’ homemade food.  We cook for each other and offer to do the dishes. We empty gel hormones into little plastic bottles and sneak them with a Qor’an and a few oranges into the illegal migrant detention center. We pick each other up off highways after brutal arguments with family. We care for each other. We’ve done so much for each other because we all see how this group can be an alternative support system, a safe space, for the most marginalized of us, and for us through our most marginalizing moments.

These days, I cringe when I hear the term “emergency case” uttered. Such a loaded term. “Mhhhmmm, she’s an emergency case.” It comes with its own set of assumptions, this term. After having handled many “emergency cases” in Meem, I can tell you that something is deeply unsettling with our understanding of support – when that support particularly involves financial assistance and the provision of services in cases of emergency.

Our purpose is to keep reaching out to those of us who have been thrown out, silenced, abused, punished, and denigrated on the basis of gender and sexuality. The bottom line is that over five years ago, we decided that our group exists to make the lives of queer women and trans persons better in Lebanon. And it’s usually the most marginalized that find their way to the group. For the most part, it’s been the young, the working class, the isolated, the trans persons, the abused, the questioning that have been sending that nervous and hopeful email to coordinator[at]meemgroup.org asking to join Meem.

We all, each one of us, join this group with our own set of fantasies and expectations; and we all, each one of us, come into this group carrying a load of emotional baggage, whether we like to admit to it or not. And a lot of us leave our baggage sitting in the quiet room at Meem, even if just for a while (which reminds me, my towels are still there). My worry is that when we deal with pressing instances of family violence, the line between support and services is more difficult to distinguish and I see us falling into the same patterns over and over again. It’s a problem when we – and I include myself here – refer to the most marginalized and struggling members of our group as cases, and to giving them support as emergency case management.

In retrospect, what I love about the process my father and I went through is that it is and always will be our own. I didn’t cave into the demands of my mom, uncles and aunts to apologize to my father. Meem didn’t offer to financially support me for three to six months until I got back on my feet. My process happened at my own pace, always with a lot of emotional support from my peers and through opportunities that are within my reach. It felt raw and it felt organic.

My concern is that very often, we may be providing our most struggling members with temporary solutions that are not actually helping them in the long run. We may be creating short term possibilities that are otherwise inaccessible to them, like moving out at a young age in a country where a paycheck of $600/month is a decent deal for most and rent for $500/month is a miracle.  When we see that the job market has left them out, we ask them to take on a project, lead an initiative, take care of our space. It is unfair. Our expectations are often misplaced, and our system is setting them up for failure. In the middle of such abrupt life-changing circumstances, it would be wiser to simply celebrate the completion of a healthy meal, for example. What I worry about the most, is that we may be intervening in the middle of the slow and delicate processes that make us who we are, that we may possibly be causing even more damage, the kind of damage that is only visible years down the road.

I’ve been wondering lately, what would support look like when none of us are emergency cases?

Lynn is actively involved in Meem, a community of queer women and trans folk. She's also into pixels, among other things.

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