I graduated college two weeks ago and I find myself already lost. The place I have called home for the past four years has shut its doors to me and I’m left outside hyperventilating under the hot Middle East sun.
This sounds dire, and to me, it is. Four years ago I started school at New York University Abu Dhabi; two years ago I came out, and one year ago I found my family of strange, amazing friends, all equal parts cynical and optimistic; all beautiful, all a little bit broken.
I’m not going to sing the praises of the university, its world-class education, its generous financial aid, or its cosmopolitan student body—at least not here. This is a piece about what made this university exceptional for me. NYU AD was exceptional in that within its air-conditioned hallways and pristine classrooms, tucked away in Saadiyat Island, a half hour away from Abu Dhabi, there existed a community of misfit students, allies, feminists, activists, and artists. The university allowed me—an Egyptian girl raised in Abu Dhabi with extremely conservative parents — to find people who were not insulted by my identity. It allowed me to find a family, to come home to people I loved, to share a cigarette with people whose hearts ached the same way mine did. More importantly, it allowed me to do these things in the home I grew up in, in Abu Dhabi.
The school is not without its problems, of course. Micro-aggressions, homophobia, and frustrating bureaucracy are as much a part of the university as any other university, but NYU AD, in the middle of the UAE was, for me, an actual dream come true. In the middle of a heterosexist, transmisogynist, deeply homophobic culture ruled by tradition and deeply ingrained gender roles, NYU AD, with its monochrome buildings and over-watered dying grass, held deep inside it groups of all manners of students, coming together in cluttered dorm rooms, making art in the strangely sterile art center, baking in the well-equipped student lounges, and smoking by the pavement, getting chased away by security guards.
Over the past year I have been blessed with this family, with impromptu dance parties, late night movie screenings, and a tad too much wine. I have been blessed with an audience for my poetry, with people I could make art with, with loved ones I could curl up next to at the end of a long day and share a cigarette with. I have been blessed with friends that walked into my room with a twirl, their whole being bursting with song, with friends that stumbled in with their hair held up with pencils, leaning against my wall and making accidental doodles with their unconscious gestures. I have been blessed with gorgeous friends, passionate about boxing, passionate about theater, well versed in light design, friends who could design beautiful clothes and tailor them in a matter of days, and friends who recited their poetry with their voices wavering with vulnerability and unexpected strength.
But I graduated college. I lost the home that was my dorm room, I lost the family that was my friends, and I lost the respect that my hard work and writing won me among my professors and peers. I have moved back with my conservative parents who don’t understand that the past four years have simultaneously been the best and worst of my life. Here I am, wondering if girls from families like mine get married out of boredom, or just to escape the constant scrutiny and judgment of their parents. Here I am, leading the script-less life. Being an Egyptian Muslim, as far as my family is concerned, means I should be engaged by now, planning a wedding, thinking up baby names. Walking off the graduation stage was like walking off a cliff poised over a black hole. Everyone was getting sucked away, my family, my friends, the people who had become my home.
This is a struggle not only I face, of course. But this is a struggle made more bitter with the heavy expectation of living life like the adult my parents envisioned me to be, a heterosexual woman married to a heterosexual man going to Friday prayers and sacrificing sheep for our son’s first week of existence in this world. This is a struggle weighed down with the abrupt loss of my support system. This is a struggle made heavy with having to move back in with controlling, abusive parents.
My chosen family is spread around the world, back to their respective homes, living in places as far and as varied as the US, Serbia, and Ethiopia. I am living the purgatory that countless recent graduates are experiencing, the awful in-between place between graduation and finding a job. I have traded my beautifully buzzed nights of spontaneous dance parties to empty nights updating my résumé and writing cover letters with my headphones firmly in place to avoid the noises of my too-big family.
In the space of the week since I’ve moved back my knuckles ache, not from random boxing sessions I had with my roommate, or writing too many notes and straining my fingers, but from punching a mirror out of frustration at my mother’s incessant badgering, and from my stepfather slamming my laptop shut on my hand when I refused to respond to his mean comments the way he had wanted me to. Instead of rolling my eyes at the overt displays of heterosexuality that suffuse the culture I live in and making offhand jokes with my friends, I have to look down and nod when my parents talk to me about my marriage prospects. Certainly things will get better, but for now I yearn for my carefree college years, and my wonderful friends, and having a strong support system.