Emerging, Retreating by Barrak Alzaid

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, April 29th, 2019

"I prayed for a hairy chest."

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Personal Essay by Barrak Alzaid

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                    The lines on my bare palms were perplexed by their exclusion, aching to be adorned. My fingertips, stretched to their limits, could barely reach each other as I lay them flat against my steaming mug of chai haleeb. I held them there, willing the heat to darken them. Held them there until the heat seared a hole straight through me. I stared at the swirls of powdered cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger that darkened as they absorbed the milky tea. My grandmother sat across from me at the kitchen table casually dipping thick crispy baqsam into her chai haleeb. I dipped my baqsam, but held it too long and my hands grew tender. The biscuit dropped into my glass and soaked all the way through, crumbling into a slurry. Umma’s henna seemed to radiate in a protective aura from her palms to the tips of her fingers. Even across the table the ochre red staining her palms smelled like wet sand after a spring rain, evoking plump desert truffles.

          “Hah Braytch?”

          She rolled my nickname across her lips, the grain of her voice cracking from sleep. Her limpid brown eyes held mine, then winked, jiggling the flat gold flower pierced into the crook of her nose, which jumped and caught the kitchen’s fluorescent light.

          That evening I held her by her elbow to steady her as she shifted down the hall to the bathroom. We passed by a cabinet and she rummaged through it and pulled a nugget of clay wrapped in thin black cloth, scraps from old thobes she wore around the house. She opened the bathroom door with her free hand, then sat on the closed toilet, all the while rolling the paste in her hand, loosening it with the warmth from her body. I lifted myself onto a stool and slid closer until my knees touched hers. I noticed the Barbies were missing from my basket of bath toys. Mama told me earlier that Baba was giving them to my cousin Saja, but I’d forgotten until just now.

          “Bismillah,” Ummah’s prayer interrupted my thoughts.

          I held my palms out, and she cupped them around the small balls of clay. She wrapped my hands into warm bundles and tightened the knot around each wrist, holding the concoction in place. Her eyes crinkled with care, and she smiled an easy smile.

          “Sleep with it tonight, and tomorrow it will be nice and strong.”

          The fibers grew moist.

          My heart hungered and beat faster. I wanted everything that henna could give me: the flurry of dancing girls folding over, bouncing in rhythm to national day oprettes, long hair bouncing over their shoulders as they tipped their heads to the right, to the left. I wanted the shock of red that flashed when girls clapped their silly playground games. The whirl and echo of movement in my mind grew frenetic until it mimicked the nightmarish heffalumps and woozles of Winnie the Pooh. In my fantasies I was always the only boy. What if all the other boys, those preoccupied with rough games and football, turned their laughter and taunts to me?

          I found the knot with my teeth and tore into it, squeezing out bits of henna that dripped on the ceramic tile. I tugged harder until Ummah laid her fingers on the swathes of fabric and peeled the layers off with the same care she had used to apply them.

*

                    I waddled over to the cabinet of red plastic-clad VHS cassettes and pulled one off the shelf. The case snapped open and I inhaled the sweet and sour plastic scent of the black cartridge, thumbed the tiny button on the side to lift the guard panel revealing the shiny tape stretched across the length of it. The panel snapped into place and I pressed it into the VCR. The grainy images on the large television screen fuzzed into view and I fast forwarded past fast food commercials for Hungry Bunny, Caesar’s Pizza, Pizza Italia.

          And then: flashes of tan colored flesh flew across the screen.

          I lifted my finger, hit rewind, and stretched out on the carpeted floor. I propped my chin up on a pillow and lay flat on my stomach, legs splayed. I stretched towards my plastic toy Sword of Omens and shouted along with Lion-O during the opening credits, “Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, ho!” His cartoon sword doubled in size each time he called out, magnifying its power. Mine just roared with an electronic hum.

          Wavy scarlet hair framed a heart-shaped face, his caramel fur coat rippled with taut muscles. His skin-tight leotard revealed every curve of fantastic furry flesh as he rolled away from Mumm-Ra to recover the Sword of Omens from the tar pit. Lion-O held the short sword up and called out again, but this time its power is stifled and Mumm-Ra cackled, “It’s useless, boy!”

          They battled hand-to-hand and toss tree trunks at each other until Mumm-Ra pinned Lion-O down on his back.

          I gripped my plastic Sword of Omens and my pelvis rubbed against a million textured fibers on the low pile carpet. Electric pulses pressed against each nerve ending, a million fast forward buttons that my clever, carnal body absorbed and delivered back to me in a loop of rising pleasure.

          I squirmed, and pulses moved from a deep spot in my belly to the tip of my head. They shattered into a boundless spray behind my eyes, and surged again a few seconds later. Every muscle tightened and relaxed in an instant.

 

*

          The orgasm in a young boy is strikingly similar, physiologically speaking, to orgasm in an adolescent or adult. Except for ejaculation, we have the same gradual physiologic changes speeding their way across our bodies. The body finds its rhythm edging against a stimulus, with throbs and thrusts from the pelvis building tension and tightness in the muscles of the abdomen, the hips, the back. We reach an apex and a sudden release of convulsions and contractions wipes away all trace of our reaction.

*

          I stared at my awkward pimply body in the mirror. Each day I documented the hairs cropping up across my body, so different from the even fur covering the faces and chests of my peers. I coveted their hair, which spurred those fleeting sensations of childhood. I couldn’t stare at the boys in my classes, so I adopted a more academic approach to recover those sensations. The shelf of Childcraft encyclopedias in Mama’s office ranged in title from ‘The Green Kingdom’ to ‘Your Body’ and those familiar tugs pulled at my insides when I grazed over the hairy patches on the watercolor illustrations of growing boys and read about their bodies.

          I started folding a selfish wish in with nightly prayers calling on Allah to protect each member of my family.

          “Bismillah al rahman al raheem.”

          My teeth clicked together and my lips silently called up to heaven.

          I prayed for a hairy chest.

          Each morning at school a row of teenage boys elbowed and kneed each other. This shapeless horde crammed itself onto two wooden benches at the top of the stairs, their snickers and jeers punctured the route to my locker. Any time I walked by, I prayed they’d just ignore me. Sometimes if Aziz and Marzouq, childhood friends, were among the fray, I’d feel bold enough to lock eyes with them and nod, hoping with a great deal of ambivalence that they’d invite me in. I had grown apart from them towards the end of Middle School, and our time was relegated to sporadic walks around the courtyard at lunch or the very occasional video game night at one of their houses. Never with the larger group.

          First period was Science and Technology and a smaller part of the horde always scrambled to Mr. Coughlin’s desktop computer to play a motorbike racing game. At the start of the semester I had made a few attempts but my scores were never high enough to warrant fighting for a coveted spot, so I usually sipped chocolate milk at my desk and doodled until Mr. Coughlin called attendance. Today Aziz grabbed me by the shoulder and walked me over to the looming computer tucked in the back of the room. He pulled up a black webpage and dozens of pop-up banners flew at us. The air felt heavy even as the chilly air conditioner blasted dusty cold air, drawing goosebumps from our skin.

          Each click of the mouse revealed another pair of breasts, pursed lips, lace panties. It was weird seeing women with hair down there, and I felt all the guys around me trying to look without looking too intently. I was relieved when a black banner covered the images with looping gold script that read “Porn Pass.”

          The horde was muted until someone muttered,“Bro, how’d you get this?”

          “Easy man, I took my mom’s credit card and bought the password. My cousin showed me.”

          I had never seen anything like it, had no idea that my computer was capable of accessing anything beyond gamefaqs.com for walkthroughs of the latest Super Nintendo and N64 games. The furthest I stretched the net was for multiplayer matches of Command and Conquer or after-school mIRC chat sessions with friends.

          We stood shoulder to shoulder facing the screen. Elbows crooked at our sides, we fidgeted, scratched at the lint in our pockets. Aziz crunched loudly at an apple. Flecks of saliva spurted from his mouth and I wiped them from my arm. The men on screen rippled and sweated. I twirled my pencil around my fingers and pressed the sharpened tip against my palm until a tiny prick loosed a bead of blood. “Bro,” Aziz said, “I get pictures from girls on mIRC, but this is way better.”

          More news. I needed to dig into this part of the chat client when I got home.

          The bell rang and the first six bars of the national anthem trumpeted from the classroom speakers. We implored Aziz, “Bro!” “Yalla!” “Give us the password!” I had no idea how they’d get away with it. I’d been to a few of their houses and their bulky desktops were all in common areas of their homes. I was the only one in this bunch with a computer in his bedroom.

*

          Late at night on the weekend, with Baba out and the rest of the house asleep, squeaky quacks and electronic whirrs signaled my entry to the net. I logged on to mIRC with my username, brocky85, and searched out the sex chat groups. #gaykuwait. Nothing. Too specific. #gayarab and #gaymuslim had a handful of users that kept popping in and out, too few for chat. I finally settled on #gaysex and scanned the usernames in the sidebar.

          A few guys pinged me, and I began refashioning myself closer to the image of Lion-O tucked in my mind. Tall, hairy chested. Nice lips. I lost myself in the monitor’s pixels. The only thing I felt was a hard ridge pressing against my pajama pants.

          I cycled through endless “Age/Sex/Location?” as new chat windows opened. Usernames and text in black, blue text came up as actions, red from spam bots.

          A new user, q80gay caught my eye.

          I typed out: /msg q80gay

          A private chat window opened.

          q80gay rubs brocky85’s hairy chest

          brocky85 kisses q80gay’s nipples

          A spot on my pajama pants grew damp and I felt myself brimming over. I entered the Gold Star password in a new browser window, searched ‘gay hairy men,’ and waited for images to load. Pixels lined up, row after row. I flicked through several screens, checking their progress while the cotton fibers around my crotch dried up. At last, a picture filled my screen and I hurried to pull my pants down and welcome him into my fantasy.

          The door snapped shut downstairs: Baba lumbering in from diwaniya. For other boys my age it was a rite of passage to regularly join their fathers in the smoky camel hair tents camped out in the desert or in their yards, playing backgammon and card games, news droning on in the corner, endless tiny stikanat of tea. Baba used to invite me when I was a kid, but I never appreciated the gesture, and these days pangs of resentment twinged in my gut.

          Honestly, I don’t have time for it anyhow. Maybe during Ramadan I can ask him. I clicked open another browser window.

          Modems were connected to phone lines, and ours wasn’t any different. The image of a guy grabbing his partner’s erect penis stopped loading. Baba must have lifted the phone off its cradle.

          I pumped as fast as I could, trying to race Baba, who would be bounding up the stairs two steps at a time, the hem of his long white dishdasha clutched in his fist. The nerves in my back prickled and my groin quivered. I spat in my hand to cool my chafing shaft.

          Nails scratched up and down my door, Baba’s version of a knock. It was always less of a request and more a signal of his imminent entry. Luckily, I’d minimized the windows just as the door cracked open.

          “Hah Barrak, what you doing. It’s very late, one o’clock in the morning.” Clipped, declarative sentences.

          I’d never tested the sight line from the doorway to the computer screen and I made a mental note to shift my monitor around so that its back faced the doorway.

          “Khalas Baba, I’m going to bed.”

          I pressed command-Q, thinking it would shut down Internet Explorer. I should have just turned off the monitor, Baba didn’t know how computers worked and he wouldn’t have noticed if the CPU motor continued humming. One by one, each seamy window leaped from the sidebar, flashed on screen and snapped shut. Shoulders, torsos, chests, nipples, asses. All covered in luscious man fur.

          Cotton fibers clung to the tip of my shaft. I winced.

          The screen dimmed and turned black and I saw his hands clench and unclench, his thumb folded over his fingers as he snapped each dry knuckle.

          I scrambled to account for this and stave off his tirade. “Baba I was confused about puberty, this came up accidentally. Like in the encyclopedia books on Mama’s shelves.”

          “Barrak.” He growled, rolling the r’s in my name in that tone that held a million threats and invectives. The scent of stale cardamom coffee laced the narrow space between us. “Bas, khalas! Enough! You go to sleep now.”

          “Baba! Please!” I whined, scrambling to shift his disgusted glare back to any sort of neutral void. He shifted away from me and towards my door.

          “Baba I’m sorry, I won’t look at it again.”

          He lifted his palms toward me as though he was commanding me from a distance. “My friend gave us this internet, and the government is watching everything. They know if you see these things.” Of course he was most worried about what anyone else would say or think, if they were to find out.

          I crawled into bed and started my negotiations, familiar to every Muslim kid who tallied the points that would land us into heaven. No more internet for a week, maybe five days. Or just until day after tomorrow. I lay back in bed and my monitor’s slick black surface gleamed in the dark, reflecting my bedside lamp. I imagined a set of eyes peering through the glass, monitoring my fantasies, and I prayed for God to protect me.

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Header image courtesy of Aleah Chapin. To view her artist feature, go here.

Barrak Alzaid (@barrakster on social media) is a writer and artist with extensive experience in curating contemporary art and performance. His current project, Fabulous at Five, is a memoir that relates his queer coming of age amidst an Arab and Muslim upbringing. It is a story of family fracture, reconciliation, and finding true love in the most unexpected of places: his home country. He is a founding member of the artist collective GCC whose work examines the Arab Gulf region’s transformations and shifting systems of power. They have exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at MoMA Ps1, The Whitney Biennial, Sultan Gallery Kuwait, Berlin Biennale IX, Sharjah Art Foundation, among others. From 2009 to 2014 he was managing editor of the ArteEast Quarterly, a digital publication focused on the Middle East, North Africa, and the diaspora. His work has been published in Jadaliyya, Ibraaz, among others. In 2011 he co-edited the online publication ‘For Lives Undone: Gaza Summons its Writers to Speak’ and curated an accompanying reading series at Columbia University and the Nuyorican Poets Café. His article, ‘Fatwas and Fags: Violence and the Discursive Production of Abject Bodies’ is available in The Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. In 2018 he was a member of the fiction cohort at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. He lives in Chiang Mai with his husband and their dog Starbuck.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.