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Hayfaa Chalabi

Against the binary: Lessons from an intense queer heartbreak

Yas reflects on their first relationship with another Middle Eastern queer person.

04 Apr

Welcome back to gal-dem’s monthly gender column ‘Against the binary’, bringing you Yas Necati’s latest reflections on finding gentleness, home and joy as a trans person.

“In the Turkish supermarket, you search through baby peaches and it makes me feel closer to you.” 

This is the first line of a poem I wrote about my ex, back in 2019 when we were still together. We had visited the Turkish supermarket, and the way she scrutinised everything that went into the basket reminded me of my grandmother, and of myself. There was something so familiar in her. The poem went on to reflect: “British people don’t pick their fruit and vegetables like this.”

This was probably the most intense and shortest relationship of my life. Travelling at super-speed even for the gays, she moved into my room after we’d only known each other for three weeks. I fell in love with her faster than I’ve ever grown to love anyone. A few months later, we broke up, then got back together, then broke up, then got back together, then broke up. When it was time for her to leave the country, we hadn’t spoken for two weeks. Us and a mutual friend met in my favourite pub, and the three of us held each other for hours. When she got up to leave, she took my cheeks between her palms, kissed me once very softly, and said: “I’m not going to say goodbye to you, because we will see each other again.” We have, of course, never seen each other since.

“We had visited the Turkish supermarket, and the way she scrutinised everything that went into the basket reminded me of my grandmother, and of myself”

I know how this sounds – how incredibly dramatic and ridiculous. We met at a queer poetry night, bonded over our shared love of Rumi, and went on our first date because I handed her a piece of paper asking if she’d like to join my new POC writing group – it was bound to be pretty dramatic.

But there was more to it than just those things. This was my first romantic/sexual relationship with another Middle Eastern person. It was also her first romantic and sexual relationship with someone other than her ex-husband, and her first queer one at that. I was yearning for a space I could bring all of myself to – someone who would get my queerness, transness and Cypriotness. She was missing Iran – hoping for someone who reminded her of home. We stayed up smoking until the early hours on our first few dates, finding all the commonalities in Farsi and the regional Turkish Cypriot I speak. We shared food that wasn’t the same, but similar. We got such pleasure from smelling Cypriot olive oil.

The poem that I shared earlier continues to read: “I want you to take me in your gentle hands and peel my clothes off like you slid skin off the aubergine so smoothly with a knife…

And when you kiss me I want the taste of our homelands to leak from between the gaps in our teeth like pomegranate juice.”

“We shared food that wasn’t the same, but similar. We got such pleasure from smelling Cypriot olive oil”

It was a rough time in my life. I had just come out as queer to my grandparents, who I love, adore and had historically found so much safety in. They were struggling with my queerness and it rocked my whole foundations, my sense of security. I wanted somewhere to anchor – somewhere I could bring my entire self. I found that in the days we spent dreaming, sharing music, writing in each other’s company and talking about Middle Eastern politics. Another poem from the time reads, “While my grandma watched gay conversion therapy TV shows,

the woman of my dreams came into my days and we cooked aubergine.”

One of my favourite things that she cooked for me was Persian rice with aubergine and Tahdig. I haven’t made it since she left because for a long time, I was grieving – not just her leaving, but losing my ability to just be and not have to edit or alter parts of my identity depending on who I was with.

During summer last year, I was sitting outside a coffee shop on Green Lanes in London with my friend Naz. We were reflecting on how the street is filled with so many Cypriot, Turkish and Kurdish shops and restaurants – how diaspora makes us closer, makes us find community in ways we never would have in the Middle East. And it’s not because we’re the same or even similar, but we are just far more similar when we are in an alien country. Suddenly we can find the commonalities between ourselves, and it helps us survive. My ex and I helped each other survive.

“I’ve learned a lot about loving – that I need my closest loved ones to welcome all the parts of me”

It took me a long time to heal from the loss of her in my life, and part of it has taken leaning deeper into community – finding other people who have similar cultures and also embrace my gender identity and sexuality. I’ve learned a lot about loving – that I need my closest loved ones to welcome all the parts of me. I am grateful to my ex for making me feel at home with her, and showing me how much I needed that and still do. 

I also think I have a lot more to learn – for a long time, I got so caught up in trying to find connections with queer/trans Middle Eastern folk, that I neglected the fact that anyone has the capability of embracing all the components of my identity, even if we don’t share some of them. My current partner, Jess, loves all of my complexity so beautifully. They have no roots in the Middle East, but they still held my hand through my journey back to Cyprus. They are embracing, so I can bring all of myself to them.

As I reflect on my relationship with my ex, I’m celebrating how we held each other through a rocky time in our lives. I’m celebrating that we explored new territory together. I hope she’s enjoying Rumi and eating beautiful food. And I want to cook her Persian rice recipe. It’s funny how some parts of the people we’ve loved always stay with us.

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