By Aya Tariq
I’m a firm believer that people aren’t always provided with the circumstances that allow us to be our true selves. I’m telling you this so that I can tell you my story without worrying about being stoned to death. I can tell you, for instance, about the time I sat waiting in a police station trying to figure out how to stop my body from vibrating because I was worried sick about how my parents would feel if they knew what I’d just done.
The arguments I’d heard over and over played in my head. “She’s crazy, how could someone be this bold!” my dad would say. My mom would defend me: “She’s not crazy, she’s a kid, she’s not a normal kid, not for this culture, but she’s done nothing that other kids around the world wouldn’t do.”
I’ve always been in the wrong. I remember when I first realized that. I was only twelve when our neighbor called my mother asking her not let me go outside and play soccer with boys. She said that her husband would sit and watch me and get aroused. Of course, instead of dealing with her husband, she turned twelve-year-old me into the problem. I knew right then that I didn’t belong in this land of make believe. Where people think that women are less than men, where kings still rule, and people get their heads cut off for sorcery.
Shaking in anger and pacing around my jail cell in Saudi Arabia, a familiar rant raced through my mind: “This isn’t fair; me being who I am isn’t fair!” But then my thoughts shifted to, “No, it’s this place, this is hell! I was born on the wrong side of the world, this is fucked up oh it’s so fucked up, I just got unlucky! I need to be out!”
At school, family gatherings, and weddings in Saudi Arabia people would say that all Moroccans were witches. My mother, a charming Moroccan woman, was constantly called a witch who stole my father’s heart. I once had a boyfriend break up with me because his father took him to an exorcist who told him I had cast a spell on him and that was why he fell madly in love with me.
I was arrested for driving a car. I was arrested for driving a car with a man who isn’t related to me. BIG. FUCKING. DEAL. Pacing around my cell, I thought of all the things I wanted to yell at those stupid fucks. Part of me didn’t care if I got stoned to death, but those words my dad repeatedly said around the house rang in my ears: “People know who we are, our reputation!” I knew I didn’t want to give away my name. My parents had suffered enough.
The cop came around the cell and asked for my name again. I was scared, but I was at the fuck-it stage. I said, “My name is Aya. This is my brother’s number.”
While I waited for him to show up, my mind entertained the hilarity of my name. I started laughing like a crazy person until someone showed up to tell me to shut the fuck up and that women aren’t allowed to laugh in public. I continued laughing and thinking, “My name is AYA!” Aya: the physical representation of perfection. How my culture saw the flaws in my being. How I was anything but perfect in the eyes of my religion and culture. How I was constantly rejected like a bad organ transplant! I laughed. I laughed and thought, there is no way out of this.
Then I thought about all the fun I’d had. I was the girl who hosted parties where men, women, cross-dressers, gays and lesbians were welcome to attend. I got some sort of a high seeing people being comfortable with who they truly were, even if it was just for one night. I thought about what I stand for and how I’ve always given zero fucks about people’s religious beliefs. I didn’t need religion to know I wanted to be kind. I think in my parents’ core they didn’t care either.
I remember when I was caught watching TV in my first boyfriend’s living room. His mother dragged me to the kitchen and put a knife on her son’s throat and told me she’d rather see him dead than for him to be with a “witchy cunt.”
She later called my mom to have her come pick me up, and she told my mom I’m a test from god and they should remain strong. My mom and dad both replied, “Fuck you and fuck your beliefs!”
Back to the prison: my brother finally showed up with someone who knew the cop that arrested me, and they let me go. I got in the car with my brother who looked at me and laughed and went, “You’re crazy, you know that, you don’t belong here.” I was relieved that he had my back, that he showed up and didn’t worry about what his friend thought of him.
Two weeks later, I packed my things and got a one-way ticket to JFK. I knew I was done being mentally and emotionally abused, and especially that I was done pretending to give a fuck. I knew that for me to be comfortable, to be my true self and celebrate it, I needed to change my circumstances. I knew as heartbroken as my parents were to send me away from them, they were also comforted by knowing that I could be whoever the fuck I wanted. Maybe I got unlucky being born in Saudi Arabia, but I also got lucky being born to parents who overcame cultural blocks, and who still to this day support my dreams.
My journey to the U.S wasn’t easy. I never take for granted the level of freedom I have here, the freedom to be able to sit at a bar, order my drink, and share the stories that make me who I am without fearing the consequences.