Randa Jarrar’s memoir, Love Is an Ex-Country, released on February 2, begins with the story of Tahia Carioca, an Egyptian dancer who motored from Los Angeles to New York in the ’60s with one of her more than a dozen husbands. Carioca—fierce, fiery, and fabulous—is Jarrar’s muse as she embarks on her own 2016 cross-country road trip, encouraging Jarrar to “commune with the land I lived on, to see America during that deeply troubled and troubling election year. To look at the place that might elect a person like Trump.” Jarrar also loves the feelings of “forward motion” and “driving,” perhaps perfect words to describe her story of abuse, trauma, reclamation, ownership, survival, and catharsis. While her memoir is less about navigating the body of land that is the United States, it is very much a journey of her own body. Abused as a child and then in her romantic relationships, Jarrar learns how to protect her body in the face of hostility. When her body is shamed by everyone—intimate and unknown—we watch her learn to extend loving-kindness to it. When she begins to explore kink, she comes to know her body as a home.
Jarrar’s story is most strikingly about the liberating power of joy and emerging triumphant after so much grief—including the Palestinian wound of displacement she carries in her body. She then blazes forth to make her Palestinian Egyptian body at home in a land that tries to marginalize and silence her at every turn. Every page is burnished with a fearless love that readers can’t help but feel in their bones, written as these essays are from the depths of her “happy fat Arab heart.” Bitch spoke with Jarrar about being Arab in the United States, kink and Armie Hammer, bartering power in relationships, and the radical audacity of joy.
Your book is a love letter to your many identities. In the essay “Magic” you write, “To be Arab in America is to be a mouse unwittingly dunked into a paint pot of invisibility ink. It’s not that Arabs don’t exist, it’s that you prefer that they remain invisible. Unless you can chart out a ‘good one’ or an especially bad one.” You became hypervisible after you called Barbara Bush racist in a viral tweet and denounced the hagiography that people indulged in after her death. That caused you to be doxed, trolled, and harassed. Could you talk about that experience, and what it means to be Arab in America?
Hypervisibility and invisibility is something so many marginalized people experience all over the world. America and countries deeply rooted in white supremacy are dangerous for those of us who exist on those margins. We’re told that if we [are] invisible—if we don’t speak, if we keep our heads down, if we work—we can be safe. Basically, our function is to be laborers. During the experience [of being doxed], I was trying to get everyone I knew who was outspoken to protect themselves. We’ve gotten to this point where everyone has become hypervisible online, so [I wanted to] make sure [their] addresses were not found, that it wasn’t easy to track down their phone numbers and their families’ names.
When I went back to campus, I spoke to a feminist Muslim queer activist in Canada. She asked me, “What would you like to happen so you can go back to work?” I said, “I’d like to be celebrated and protected.” She told me, “Call your friends. Tell them to show up for you. Tell them to walk you to your classroom.” And it was incredible because these neo-Nazis showed up with their cameras and their signs, but my friends were there too, and they outnumbered them. So, in terms of who showed up in real life, we’re braver. Look at the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer! I continue to say whatever I want. That level of rage is not sustained on the right. They pick people to bully and silence, but they don’t have the stamina that we have to keep talking, to keep fighting, because we’ve been fighting since the beginning. From the moment we’re born, we have to fight to survive here. [Being doxed] taught me a strength I didn’t know I had. It also showed me the ways [members of the] community protect one another. It takes guts.
You write that when you moved to the United States in 1991, you began to identify as Arab American rather than simply Palestinian. What does “Arab American” mean to you?
I’ve identified in different ways at different times. When I tried to visit my sister [in Palestine], I’d fallen for the idea that I could just be Arab American. Going back to Palestine actually affirmed to me that I’m Palestinian. Israelis actually told me I was Palestinian—you can’t come in. Being Palestinian is something you inherit. It’s a deep sense of loss and erasure. You try to negotiate your way around or out of it, but it’s a process of grieving. Grieving that you no longer have a place to call home, and you don’t have the stability of belonging somewhere. And it affects a person no matter who their parent is, because a Palestinian’s life is dictated by their Palestinianness. Literally. Whether you have a passport or papers dictates where you’re going to live, what job you’re able to have, where your kids are going to live. So it’s something we carry.
Arab American is a newer idea that came up in the 20th century [among] people from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, etc., connoting a larger kind of community. But I tend to dance around that identity too. Even now, I question what is Arab American identity? Do I want to claim myself as Arab, or am I an Egyptian and a Palestinian? Is the word Arab something that Israelis came [up] with to identify Palestinians in the ’40s and before? Am I using a word that causes my erasure?
Is the term “Arab American” used to flatten identities? Sometimes I feel like people don’t want to do the work or develop a sense of nuance. It’s convenient for them to just think of us as Arab or South Asian.
It’s [a flattening]. Growing up in the Middle East, I was told I was Palestinian or Egyptian. It was more specific, and I know that people have a lot of feelings about Southwest Asia or North Africa as a label because it can be problematic when we zoom out so much. Why are we doing that? Who benefits when we zoom out so much? I really embrace the idea of being more specific and saying I’m Palestinian Egyptian. It’s more syllables, but that’s not my problem.
Let’s talk about another identity that stands out in your book: your body. You write about body dysmorphia, body shaming, and how white supremacy affects how we conceptualize beauty. You also write with great love about your body; there’s a sentence I loved where you say you’re “confident and gorgeous in your rejection of mainstream beauty standards.” How did you arrive at a place where you can reject those standards?
We’re fed a daily onslaught of regulated bodies that are constantly presented as examples either of health or of beauty. [For me] it was a really cool process of researching fat activism and seeing so many Black women doing this work to reject those standards. As soon as cameras became more accessible—on phones and computers—I started seeing more images of fatter women, women with disabilities, and folks who don’t identify as women and are femme. [There was also a process of] understanding that there’s classism and racism going on and hearing activists say how one doesn’t get a moral high ground for eating raw or eating healthy. There’s a moral or purity judgment happening—and it’s not going to liberate or help us. I feel really lucky [that I got to] do the work of loving myself and my body and got to know and accept my body before filters were a thing. I’m also privileged. I have lighter skin. I have what some people might call a smaller fat body. So I constantly think about all the ways people’s investment in white supremacy might allow me to move with more privilege in the world. But when I’m in the public eye, the first thing that’s critiqued is my body—and the unruliness of the fat female body. So my journey to loving my body was important.
Were there any particular people or activists who had an impact on you?
Roxane Gay! Before [I had] Roxane, [I was] on Blogspot and Tumblr, where I could find anonymous amazing women posting pictures of their bodies. The more I saw larger women posting their bodies, the more it normalized for me. I really love Safiya Darling Instagram’s account.
So much of your memoir addresses the trauma and abuse your body has endured. How did you look out for yourself when you were revisiting those memories?
I love how there’s more of an awareness of how hard it is to write about trauma and to do it in a way that’s authentic while remaining kind to yourself. I write first drafts really quickly, and I give myself a lot of space between when I write it, when I’m going to read it, and when I’m going to edit it. I’ve also been to a ton of therapy, so I do all of my PTSD exercises. I have my feet on the ground at all times so that I know that I’m grounded. I take frequent breaks. Deep breaths. Remember that I’m not in that place anymore. That I’m here. I’m protected. I’m safe. The hard part is the many rounds of edits, where you’re reading about your trauma constantly. I had to tell myself that I wasn’t doing that work for myself anymore. I was thinking that when this book comes out, someone might need to see these things aren’t normal, and I need to push forward because it might help someone else. So shifting from doing it for me to doing it for others was really important because it helped me remove any sort of self-centered “I don’t want to deal with this.”
In your two essays on kink and BDSM, you write “In kink, consent is queen” and “Kink busts binaries wide open. Maybe there is not a duality of the self, but a hexagonal.” What do these sentences mean to you?
My experiences with kink and seeing the ways that women, nonbinary [folks], femmes, and queers have engaged with kink over the past couple of years showed me how revolutionary it is, and how important it is, to center consent. If consent isn’t centered, to me it’s not kink anymore; it’s just abuse. Checking in and giving people very clear boundaries around pain levels or how a scene will go is the opposite of the out-of-control nature of abusive moments or situations. Seeing the ways people barter or think about power was really amazing.
Why do you think there’s nearly always a refusal to contend with the power dynamic in heteronormative relationships?
The hesitance to contend with power dynamics benefits powerful people. People just don’t want to give up their power. Once you admit [you have power], it becomes real. It becomes something that can be taken or given away. But power should always be questioned and verbalized. The idea that we’re equals is the dangerous part; more people need to understand that. Or maybe they do, but they don’t want to take responsibility for that power. They don’t want to admit it’s there. They just want to be proper stewards of that.
That’s what the Armie Hammer discourse was missing—the effect of power and the line between abuse and consent.
Absolutely. And it happens constantly. Once a year there will be some celebrity that thinks their fetish is someone else’s fetish without checking in or figuring it out. And then they get caught and they’re like “I’m just being judged!” I’ve had moments where I’ve told people, “I don’t have that fetish, but you might want to look on this website to find people who might.” And so many men, specifically, will say, “Oh, I just want it to be natural.” But the natural thing is just male fantasy, total ego. [Your fetish] is going to take some research and safety. People will fucking go on Yelp to find a shawarma, why can’t [they] also do that for a fetish? They actually need to do the work to find out if the people they’re playing with are actually excited to be doing that with them.
Joy is a way to heal people and to move forward in a world that’s constantly throwing ridiculous things at us. Let’s laugh and make people laugh. It’s a power we have.
Have these conceptions of consent and boundaries had an impact on your other relationships? If so, how?
Yeah, definitely. Just being put in a constant state of awareness of how I treat others was one of the best things that came out of engaging in kink. I grew up in a household with no boundaries, where I was traumatized, and then I had a relationship with very bad boundaries, and then I had a child. [Kink] taught me ways I’ve been abusive and [how] to be accountable for where I’ve crossed boundaries or where I’ve started a conversation with someone who wasn’t ready for it or didn’t have the capacity to support me and so ended up being drained. Or [when I’ve acted] in ways that [might have made] my child [feel] afraid. We can be emotional punching bags for other people and also turn other people into our emotional punching bags. So [it taught me to] be a lot more sensitive to the ways my anger can affect others.
Your book is such a triumphant work. There’s joy in the prose and a joyful acceptance of your personhood. Let’s talk about joy—the liberation of it, the radicalness of it, and the audacity of it. How do you think of joy? Is it an intentional thing in your life?
It’s totally intentional! But also, ever since I was a child, I’ve been watching comedies. I was raised on Egyptian comedies, which are irreverent, goofy, cerebral, slapstick, feminist, flirtatious, dirty. I respect comedy and people who can wield it. I love hearing people laugh. Also making people laugh is this electric, amazing ability that we have as humans. You’re actually eliciting a bodily response that is rippling endorphins through their body. It’s such a beautiful, transformative exchange; it’s like a lightning bolt. I love that humans have the ability in their bodies to laugh and that it can lift their bodies through awful moments, because we also have the capacity for such deep grief and sadness. I feel these things are connected, and there must be some kind of divine mercy involved that we have the capacity for both sadness and joy.
Joy is revolutionary. I choose to transform sadness to joy in humor, because that’s a kind of alchemy and I’m a witch enough to do [so]. We live under systems that want us to feel fearful, so we can be controlled. And when you introduce joy and humor—those are disrespectful emotions. [Joy is] a way to heal people and to move forward in a world that’s constantly throwing ridiculous things at us. I’m going to hold on to that. Let’s laugh and make people laugh. It’s a power we have.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.