September 30, 2010
Looking back at the early days of AIDS, almost everybody in the Middle East talked about the new Western disease that seemed to be the very logical and divine result of the decadence of the West, the punishment for adultery and homosexuality.
Theories of the "super nation" and moral superiority fueled the misconception that Muslims and especially Middle Easterners are immune when it comes to HIV. Governments that reacted hysterically to the pandemic, imposing a series of Middle Ages-like policies targeting HIV-positive people under the title of preventing HIV from entering our countries, helped in building more this wrong belief in our immunity as a society and as individuals towards HIV -- and it created such a strong stigma associated with HIV in most Muslim countries.
I can't feel anything but relief when I think of how, in spite of such a mentality, I was always determined to get tested regularly. I believed that it was my obligation to any human I was getting intimate with that I know my status! By now, one of the first things that I advocate for after fighting the stigma is to raise awareness of the importance of testing within our community. I do believe that stigma and lack of HIV-testing awareness are intertwined in most cases.
Terminologically speaking: In the Middle East, everyone eradicated the HIV virus from their daily life a long time ago. In the Middle East, people talk only about AIDS -- referred to as "AL-AIDS" -- and the word HIV is only known vaguely; sometimes I even joke to myself that if I tell people in my community that I'm HIV positive they wouldn't even know what that means.
But this linguistic phenomenon indicates a deeper problem of huge stigma which I find it difficult to compare to any other community in the world! And the mixing-up of HIV and AIDS is what made me terrified once I was given my positive results, as images of AIDS patients jumped from the 80s to my present-day memory.
The wrong perception about HIV and sexuality that is so apparent within some parts of the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in the US is actually rooted back at our first homeland in the Middle East.
HIV, or "AL-AIDS" as known in our community, is still the one-eyed monster that parents use to scare their children with, in order to prevent them from what they see as immoral behaviors. It's very common to hear the word " AL-AIDS" used by religious leaders when talking about the mother of all punishments, which as I shall prove -- in one of my coming blogs dedicated to discussing HIV from the Islamic perspective -- contradicts entirely how Islam views any illness, including HIV and AIDS!
For me, to exist in a family and a culture that stigmatizes -- unfairly -- HIV-positive people and AIDS patients is a long and slow torture, especially when I fondly want to keep my connection to my family and community.
The worst feeling is when you have to hide your suffering and suffer in pain; I always hated loneliness and I always enjoyed groups (by the way, I am talking about in social life and not sex! :).... Even when it comes to pain, I don't want to be alone; it's so hard when you suddenly feel that HIV can silence the loud noise of people around you, and say: You are alone in this.
I will live with this difficult situation every day -- worried that someone from my community might spot me coming out from the HIV clinic or see me at the pharmacy picking up my HIV meds, and report this merry sighting to the community in my little Middle Eastern neighborhood.
Are you wondering why would he do so? Because we function as one: In other words, if you live in Dearborn, expect Aunt Fatima who lives in San Diego to be discussing the problem of your becoming 35 without marriage with her dear neighbor Aisha; furthermore, expect Aisha to make long-distance calls to the Middle East to search for a beautiful polite wife from a known family for you, and before you know it, Aisha, whom you never met in your life, could be the star of your own version of How I Met Your Mum!
For Middle Easterners, the community and family is not only about eating Falafel and Humus: It's where they belong, it's a connection to their faith which is an important part of their identity, it's where they have the human connection with people who understand their language, faith, music, jokes, stories, and most important, where they learned they would be safe.
This same community, which was my entire courage, is becoming today my biggest fear; and my family, which gave me all the passion in the world, is the nightmare that hunts me -- fearing that they might know one day simply that I am sick.
I know that in the US it's illegal to discriminate against me because of my status. All the legal regulations related to the protection of HIV-positive individuals in the US function well in certain aspects such as the work environment, but they cannot protect me from being emotionally and psychologically rejected by my family or community.
The law doesn't intervene with my relation to my community, culture, faith or family. These aspects are regulated according to our cultural norms and traditions which are imported from the Middle East. These norms became stronger and more visible within the community recently as a reaction to the wave of rejection and alienation our community is facing after 9/11, which caused our frightened community to crawl into a cave to hear its own echo.
Now you might wonder: If my people are so ready to hurt me if they find out that I am HIV positive, why should I care about them? The hell with such a brutal community and such a cruel family! The answer is simple -- for me at least: Because we were raised to believe that the family, the tribe and the community matter more than anything else. I can't change now how I learned to feel all these years. It's like trying to be left-handed when you are right-handed all your life!
I always wonder if my community and family are capable of forgiving me one day for becoming HIV positive. I wish I could be less terrified that they might find out that I have THE DISEASE, THE CURSE, THE AL- AIDS, because in fact I don't have that. All I have is a tiny virus that is unfortunately becoming stronger than my whole Middle Eastern community.
Well I can start by forgiving myself at least, through writing this blog.