Patrick Abboud: Whiskey and Rain
Hi I’m Maeve Marsden, and you’re listening to the podcast of Queerstories – an LGBTQI storytelling night hosted at Giant Dwarf in Redfern. This week – Patrick Abboud, an award winning storyteller, documentary filmmaker and broadcaster shares his story with us.
Hi. How are you? I’m really nervous. And people always think thats really weird because you’re on the tele all the time why are you nervous? But I think this is a bit different because, you know, its personal. I talk to people about their personal shit all the time, but no one ever really gets to ask me about my personal shit. But Maeve convinced me to do this tonight.
This story begins with whiskey and rain…Purple rain…
“I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain…”
They’re words I borrowed from Prince…an artist my brother idolized. They’re also the words I uttered to my mother after years of mourning. She mourned for what she thought was the death of another son. The end of a dream that she’d spent her entire adult life creating for me. You see, I was her last hope.
My Mum didn’t have much of an adult life though. She was married at 17 in the poorest part of the north of Lebanon in a small village. Beautiful village, but a small poor village. My father was born in Palestine. He’s a 1948 refugee if you don’t know what that is, look it up it’s very important. As a kid Dad was known as….what in Arabic we call AKROOT or misfit, little shit, troublemaker essentially. He still is. His father died when he was 11. Dad lived in Lebanon in a refugee camp. He never went to school, he stole cars, broke hearts and caused havoc.
And then at 15 Dad spotted Mum. For the next two years he would court her…the old school way. He’d wait for her at the school gate and bring her a shiny green apple every single day without fail. True story. He had no money but he had a neighbour with an apple tree that was very healthy. He was infatuated. Obsessed. Smitten. Mum didn’t pay him the least bit of attention because if she did she’d probably get skinned. Gedo (that’s granddad in Arabic) warned her to never speak to him because he was meshkli kbir kbir which means trouble. The entire village would say ‘He’s big danger. Big Trouble’. But he persisted until Mum finally gave him eyes and she too fell in love….with his rebellion. His carefree spirit. His bad boy ways.
Mum is the golden child. One of 4 kids – the only girl. She was smart. Really smart and stunning. Like literally the smartest most beautiful girl in the village. And still is all of that and more in my world. She wore tailor made dresses that my Aunt sewed for her. Her hair – always quaffed. Her skin – impeccable. Her eyes – incandescent and her smile – infectious. The oldies cottoned onto to this burgeoning romance and forbid my Mum from walking to and from school alone anymore. She was chaperoned for months afterwards. This is a true story! Only in the village in Beirut. Actually, in the North of Lebanon, not in Beirut.
My Dad disappeared but he never let her feel he was gone. Every night when the village slept, he’d leave a green apple at the foot of her bedroom window, every night risking his life to do so. It was a very healthy apple tree. Hundreds of apples later and a yearning that just never waned. My Mum finally gave in. One night as he left another apple my Dad managed to slide a letter into my mum’s bedroom window on this particular night. Finding this letter would be the day my Mum’s life changed forever. That morning she went to school wearing 2 layers of clothing, a simple white non descript dress and her school uniform on top. A lot larger than she was used to being. She left the house and no one suspected a thing. Following my Dad’s instructions in the letter, she ran away from school at lunchtime. That afternoon she was married to my Dad. Yeah she’s a daredevil, she still is. The plan was so elaborate and bullet proof – well almost. Mum and Dad went back to the village after 3 nights in hiding. That’s a very long story to tell you, but that’s for the next time. My Gedo was waiting with a rifle. Another true story, he actually tried to shoot my Dad. Thankfully my Mum’s cousins and the family calmed him down, took his rifle and Mum and Dad left.
A bit of context around that – where they came from people weren’t really allowed to fall in love. Spouses were chosen for you. You got married when you were told and only if the groom’s family had money that was a huge drawcard. Obviously not for Dad he had no money, a lot of apples though. It was tough but Mum and Dad were in love and really that was all that mattered. Love.
That’s what I reminded them both of when fast forward 31 years later, a still very naïve, sheltered, scared shitless me – came out. Well I didn’t really come out you see – I was outed. And here’s where the story gets really complicated. Everyone that knows me, knows I have a sister Fadia. Some of you in the audience might know her, I know many of you do. Isn’t she gorgeous? She’s not really my sister. She’s a dyke. Well now she’s a dyke but she wasn’t before. And she outed me to my parents who they see as their daughter. Confused? Yes. It’s confusing.
After my parents eloped they had 2 boys Harry and Tony – my big bro’s. The civil war got too much with kids and they fled Australia. Then here in Australia came my brother Jason, then me. So we are actually only a family of 4 boys – not 4 boys and a girl as most people now know us. It’s just easier to tell that story…because the real story hurts. It hurts so much that I’ve never really had the courage to speak of it openly before now. I will try to hold back the emotion. Every time Fadia and I meet someone now – we leave this part out. And we have left it out for many many years. But now I don’t want to omit the one thing that has shaped so much of who I am out of my story because it just doesn’t feel right anymore. I guess I’m ready to share it, and what better place to share it than the safe company of you my fellow queer brothers and sisters.
My dyke sister Fadia is actually my sister in law. She was married to my eldest brother Harry. Harry and I were exceptionally close. He raised me. He taught me about Prince and about punk and about the metaphysical poets and Shakespeare and sex, art and anarchy. There was 10 years between us. He the oldest. I the youngest. But our bond was timeless. Still is. Harry was my best friend. Still is. My confidant. My idol and I wanted to be just like him. Still do.
I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father. Harry was the man I looked up to. The light that guided my path in the darkest of times. And he still does. An exceptionally talented lawyer and artist and cyclist and baker and lover of theatre and really fucking weird music that I adored. The purveyor of lots of weird shit that I adored that I just never would have known about or been inspired by if he hadn’t been there inspiring me. He’d go to law school…and study all night at home afterwards. I would literally count down the hours until he’d get home.I used to sit on his bed while he studied and read his books. He’d sleep 3 hours. Go to work in a bakery before law school to save money for records and guitars. His dream was to play bass in a band.
On the weekends he’d take me vinyl shopping to all the second hand record stores. I’d sit on the floor in this one record store we both really really loved. They had the coolest purple shag pile carpet….so very Prince. He’d pass me a stack of records and say “go sample these”. Then we’d drive home and in the car he’d ask me to tell him what I thought. How did the music make you feel he’d say? I still hear that question in my head every time I listen to a new track, walk out of a gig and I still answer him, only now they’re just words in my head that never leave my mouth. But I know he’s always listening. In fact he’s never stopped listening.
Harry, my brother, my best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident.
I was 17. My sister in law Fadia and he were married for just a few weeks before the accident. Their romance was short lived but one of the most special I have ever known. She was on the bike with him. She survived (barely) but she survived. He didn’t. After years of recovery Fadia and I just decided we’d tell everyone we were brother and sister because, well, it was easier that way. As you can see it is still difficult to talk about it now. Her and I grew closer and closer. But I grew further distant from my parents and my other brothers. I knew I was gay, I just didn’t know how to accept it or even really comprehend it or understand it. The part of the world where my parents came from gay people were a sin, an abomination. I had no idea, I had never met another gay person.
Right now in some regions of the Arab World, in the more conservative Islamic countries particularly, there are thousands suffering the most horrific discrimination and human rights abuses. Homosexuality is still punishable by imprisonment, and in extreme cases – even death. I think I’ve said that a hundred times over the past couple of years in various things that I’ve done. But it’s still happening and it’s horrific. Lebanon only just changed their laws this year and homosexuality is no longer considered a crime there. Thank fuck for that. So knowing how my parents perceived gay people, having lost my brother and seeing what my parents were going through after our loss as a family, I just couldn’t bare to put them through any more pain.
I tried really hard to make myself ungay. I had girlfriends. I had sex with women. True story. But my heart was black. My soul empty. I was literally robotic. Machine like. Emotionless and so deeply deeply unhappy. I had become really ill. I developed an issue with eating and basically didn’t really eat and at the point where I weighed 29kg my parents decided that they’d send me to Lebanon. “Find himself a wife” they said. They kind of said that in jest but they really did mean it, I think that was the hope. And I decided they were right. About Lebanon. Not so much the wife. I needed to get away. To find all that joy, all that happiness, all that incredible wisdom and love that my brother Harry had given me. I decided to go.
So I went to Lebanon. What was supposed to be a 6-week spouse hunt (in my parents mind), ended up 11 months living in a new city, with a totally new outlook on life. I discovered a community of LGBTQI Arabs that were living so underground but expressing their identity in ways I had never thought possible. I felt like I’d arrived at myself again. Like I was finally at home in my homo skin. I experienced so many first times with my sexuality amidst a backdrop of war and bombs going off never too far away. It genuinely felt like every day could be your last so why not live that way. Everyone I was meeting was living that way. Be hedonistic. Be carefree. Let go. And I honestly felt free for the first time in years since my brothers death. It was an incredible feeling. It was all wrong in my head that I had to go to Lebanon to do it, but now all these later it makes so much sense.
Growing up in a very sheltered western Sydney Arab household, middle class mainstream gay was the only gay I knew because it’s all I saw on the TV, in the magazines, everywhere I looked none of it resonated with what I felt deep inside. I just never saw me in Sydney. Oxford St was not me. White muscle boys were not me. Sauna’s and sex clubs were not me. I always thought if I’m gay that’s who I have to be here, and it just wasn’t me.
In Beirut, everywhere underground bar, every clandestine club night, every beach party, I saw guys like me. I felt like I could be gay and still be Arab and hey its OK. In that year it was the first time I kissed a boy (it was really good), the first time I held a mans hand (that was awkward but also nice), the first time I danced…like really fucking danced. You know that feeling when you’re on a dance floor and you really let it go, yeah I wish I still had those moves. It was the first time I looked at myself in the mirror in the morning and felt like I could see clearly the guy that was looking back at me. After I lost my brother that was something that was very difficult to do because we also look very much alike. So it was kind of like every time I looked at myself I was constantly seeing him. My heart was wounded and the pain of losing him never faded but it became easier because I was surrounded by all this beauty and love and acceptance. And a welcoming community of people who didn’t judge me at all, and let me be who I needed to be. From that moment everything I did became about doing all the things that my brother Harry would never have the chance to.
It was the excuse I gave my parents about not finding a wife….I want to travel first I said….see the world. That kept them quiet for quite a long time. When I returned home to Australia, I went straight to see Fadia my sister in law. It kind of feels weird saying that because I’ve honestly, until tonight, in public always said ‘my sister’ and everyone really knows us that way. She took one look at me and said. It’s OK I know. We had a hug and it was pretty amazing. It took years more to tell anyone here who I really was. I kept up the facade with my folks. Always finding a new excuse. I still couldn’t bare to put them through any more pain, because for them every time they saw me they also saw my brother. But that changed – again because of my sister in law.
Years more would pass.
Fadia and I continued telling everyone we were brother and sister. But nothing prepared me for the bombshell that she dropped at breakfast one morning. She says, Patty I have something to tell you, actually she said “Habibi” which means my sweetheart or darling. I have something to tell you….I’ve met someone. I can still feel the joy in my heart from that moment when I speak of it right now…She always said her heart was dead she’d never love again. She just couldn’t. But she did – and this time it was with a lady. They are still together and she is fucking incredible. I adore her to bits. My sister in law remained close to my folks. One day she was at my parents place and I wasn’t there. Randomly my Dad gets up from his midday slumber (my dad sleeps a lot, doesn’t have any apple trees at home though. He’s tried but they don’t grow the same here) and says to her….tell me something is Patrick queer. He used the word “queer” which is really strange for my father, he’s a pretty old school Arab man and there’s no way he could know that word. She was thinking ‘how the fuck does he… why is he saying queer?’. That confronted her more than the fact that he was asking the question! Seriously it was very strange. She was in shock and says well yeah he’s a bit weird and different you’ve always known that. He says…no tell me is he a poofter. She’s like – OK that makes more sense. He’s always talking about that guy (who was my secret boyfriend at the time). She is stunned and totally shut down. Mum chimes in and says well you spend a lot of time with your friend that girl Dareen…she’s always staying at your house and she’s all you ever talk about but you’re not a lesbian.
And in that moment both of our lives would change forever – AGAIN. My sister in law says….well yes I am. I am a lesbian now and Dareen is my girlfriend. We live together. And that was the moment I got outed by default. My folks put two and two together. I got a phone call not long after from my sister in law with the news. Jokes aside I was petrified. I thought I was dead. There’s no way this is going to go down and they are going to be OK with this. She came back into town. We sat in her lounge room. We drank whiskey and listened to Purple Rain on repeat. A lot. It was our song. Still is. One of my brother Harry’s all time favourites. But she looked at me and I said to her “I reckon I’m going to be dead tomorrow, so let’s drink more whiskey and keep listening to Prince and enjoy this night together”. She looked back at me and said “No – this is your time to change lives. To be bold and to take your parents through what is going to be tough journey but I know Harry will get us all through it”, and she was right. Here I am now.
I was the guy telling all my queer Arab mates don’t ever come out to your parents. Just live your life in private. Be a good Arab son. Be a good Arab daughter. And now this. It was time to change that, not just for me but for so many of us. That is who I was around at the time, we were this underground community of closet Arabs. My sisters house was literally a refuge for queer Arabs who weren’t out. Also a full time party house. The next day. I went home to Mum and Dad’s. I walked in and Mum was wailing like another son had died. She literally sounded exactly the same as the night the police came to our door with that death knock. A night I will never forget. I felt like a knife had gone through me and I was right back there again. When I walked into a room, my Dad would walk out. He couldn’t even look at me. That was really difficult to deal with. Since then, it’s been an ongoing journey with Mum and Dad and my brothers. In the past few years though since I made the choice to be very public about being gay (i.e. hosting the Mardi Gras) they have actually been pretty bloody extraordinary. Actually last year when we were on set my Dad was sending me text messages saying ‘fix your tie it’s crooked’ and mum was like ‘I don’t think that colour is good for you’. So clearly things have progressed a lot which is great.
And in fairness – my family give me so much love, even though sometimes they still find it hard, they are unwaveringly supportive. I love them with everything in me, and I would give any limb on my body for any one of my family. I am very lucky to have them. They are incredible people – I’m one of the lucky few that can be out now and get text messages from my parents when I’m hosting the Mardi Gras on television about my clothing and get their fashion advice. I couldn’t come out for so long because I didn’t want to risk losing my family. For us Arabs, family is everything. Now I can say I am gay and I am an Arab and that is totally OK. And I don’t have to choose anymore which is an amazing feeling. At the end of the day I am who I am because of the beauty and richness of my culture and my family and I’m so fucking proud of that. Coming out is a universal story I’m sure many of us in this room have all been through our own journey down that road and it’s difficult for many. For some its a breeze. For some their parents say to them ‘when the fuck are you going to come out?’ Clearly that wasn’t my experience. The experience is different for everyone regardless of cultural background. But when you have that added layer of having to negotiate not only your cultural identity but also your sexuality it can cause such horrible grief. Not just for you as an individual but for many people around you who mean a lot to you. There are so many other Arab brothers and sisters still out there that feel there is no hope and no other option is to live in the closet. Many enter marriages of convenience right here in Australia…I have done stories about it and it is literally happening right now.
As my brother Harry always said to me…On those drives home from the record stores…As I sat on his bed reading his books…And every minute of every hour of every days since he passed….I still hear his words… He said “Don’t let anyone ever tell you, you can’t be who you want to be. Don’t ever be scared to question. Never stop dreaming and use your imagination when it gets really tough. Because your imagination will always get you through”.
Thank you Harry for making me all of who I am and thankyou for giving me Fadia – my incredible sister in law who I now no longer have to tell everyone is my sister because your death and our loss is no longer a secret but a celebration of life.