They/them in Arabic

Stories from the Outside

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My friend FaceTimed me crying two weeks before finals last spring. I freaked out, wanting to go to her place to see what was wrong. But she stopped crying only to say a few words: “Do not watch ‘Normal People’ on Hulu.” She refused to answer any of my questions about why I shouldn’t watch it and later hung up. I knew I had no choice: I had to watch the show.

I had only seen one Hulu Original series before, which was “Ramy.” Going through “Normal People,” I didn’t know what to expect between my friend’s warnings and my unfamiliarity with Hulu’s content. But she was right. “Normal People” is the type of show that you need to watch in separate doses to give yourself time to process it. Instead, unfortunately, I binged it. And when I finished, I wanted to watch something else to distract me from what I’d just seen. I wanted something light and refreshing. There was one show that matched the criteria and was premiering on Hulu at that time: “Ramy,” season two. 

“Ramy” is a comedy-drama that follows the life of Ramy, a first-generation Muslim Egyptian-American, as he navigates spirituality in New Jersey. The length of the episodes, approximately 30 minutes, made it easy to binge-watch them in a few sittings. Little did I know that “Ramy” would introduce a similar issue to the one I had faced watching “Normal People”: the need to process the magnitude of what I’d watched.

One episode that forced me to take more processing time than usual is entitled “They.” Ramy’s mother works as a Lyft driver, and one day, she finds out that her account was temporarily suspended. After contacting one of Lyft’s representatives, she learns that one passenger filed a report against her, leading the security representative to freeze her account. She expresses her frustration to her daughter, who asks her to recall every passenger she picked up recently to figure out who’d filed the report. The mother mentions details and names of different passengers, but just as the daughter feels that they’ve hit a wall, the mother remembers one last passenger she forgot to mention — “a guy that was dressed as a woman, but he said he was not a man or a woman.” 

This passenger’s name is Sophia. The mother thought it was strange when she picked Sophia up because “he kept saying (she) should call him ‘they’ as if he was two people.” She had thought the dress Sophia was wearing was for a costume party because they were wearing “a woman’s dress,” and the daughter screams in shock at how offensive the mother had been. The mother defends herself, noting that she told Sophia she knew Caitlyn Jenner and that “when she became a woman, she became the fourth prettiest Kardashian.” Sophia had replied, “I’m not like that. I’m something different.”

Between the mother’s confusion and the daughter’s angry explanations, the language barrier emerges. The daughter is explaining the difference between gender and sex, pronouns and being nonbinary. The mom is just sitting in confusion wondering “how a ‘he’ could be ‘they.’ ” And watching this scene, I realized that I’m both at the same time.

Language defines — and at times, limits — the way we see the world. There is, for instance, no Arabic word for gender. The word جنس (pronounced “gens”) is used to describe both gender and sex, and although نوع (pronounced “na’w”) is occasionally used, it’s still used interchangeably to mean both ideas. The first time I learned the difference between these terms and their definitions was in English. Before that moment, my understanding of my body, gender identity and sexuality was defined by the only two words I knew: جنس and نوع. 

Resisting the idea that sex influences gender and thereby influences sexuality was impossible for me; rejecting gender as a social construct was not an option. Imagining, then, an existence beyond the gender binary was not even feasible. How could I be something I didn’t have words for? How can I be something I can’t articulate? 

Creating a language of our own” was one of the first articles that I read in Arabic that addressed the influence our language possesses over our identities. The author of this article is Farah Barqawi, an activist, artist and founder of Wiki Gender. Barqawi defines Wiki Gender as “a space in which we try to produce, develop, and document knowledge in the Arabic language about gender, feminism, sexuality, and other issues of concern to us.” She wrote this article after someone asked how the term “gender non-conforming” can be translated into Arabic, and the article poses this question: “Where can we read about the causes that concern us, if we don’t write about them ourselves?” 

“Writing in Arabic about the issues and intersections of gender, sexuality, and the body is in itself an enormous challenge,” Barqawi writes in answering the previous question. “Many of us are unused to even thinking about our sexuality, much less writing about it — content with the notions that we have been fed about our bodies and desires.” And the main reason we don’t even think (let alone write) is that we don’t have any language to use. Understanding these aspects of our identities is worlds and alphabets away.

It is undeniable that platforms and publications like Wiki Gender, Kohl and Jeem aim to enrich the Arabic vocabulary addressing issues of gender. Barqawi observes, however, that this content “is still, by and large, produced in languages other than Arabic, and especially in English, even by feminists who speak Arabic and live in the region.” And even when the language barrier is overcome and platforms produce knowledge in Arabic, another layer of inaccessibility emerges: The production, circulation and discussion of this knowledge only occur in an academic context, leaving the people most in need out of the equation. 

I can’t be what I can’t see. I also can’t be what I can’t describe or even imagine. And it haunts me that certain aspects of my identity can only be articulated and understood in English — they’re basically invisible, or actually, nonexistent, when discussed in my mother tongue. So until each aspect is thoroughly understood and explained in Arabic, I’ll continue to be lost in translation.

Khaled Alqahtani writes the Wednesday column on decolonization. Contact them at [email protected]