Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden, and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, as Sydney’s only Lebanese, lesbian, ex-Jehovah’s Witness comedian, Naomi Mourra is your gateway woman to chicks, chickpeas, cults and culture. Her solo show, An Open Book, debuted in 2018 and she has since had sold out runs at the Sydney Fringe Comedy Festival and the Sydney Comedy Festival. She co-founded and co-produced What She Said, Sydney’s first weekly all women’s comedy night. And not satisfied with just waffling on stage, she also co-founded Sydney’s first bubble waffle cafe in Manly. Naomi gigs regularly at comedy nights around Sydney so make sure to check her out online and find out when shes performing. She performed this story at Queerstories, Western Sydney.
Naomi: My adolescent head is bowed as I listen to my dad pray before lunch. He thanks God for the food, seeks forgiveness for our sins and hopes the end of the world comes soon. I hope it comes soon too.
If there’s a Venn diagram for Lebanese, Lesbian, Ex-JW and born in Cabramatta, I’m alone in the centre.
Lebanese lesbian. I’m the ultimate tongue twister. Interestingly, there is some crossover between the two cultures, not just me; a common delicacy in both cultures are “lady fingers”.
Being the only Lebanese family in Cabramatta wasn’t an accident. When my parents emigrated in the 60s, my dad managed his self-loathing by actively seeking a sburb where the fewest Lebanese people were, and at that time, Cabramatta was THE place.
Sometimes growing up I would feel particularly Lebanese.
In primary school, my friends lunch on delicious noodles. While I stare at a roll of lebanese bread with halloumi, and a separately wrapped whole lebanese cucumber. I bite the halloumi roll followed by the cucumber and repeat. I was the only child in the playground appearing to be partaking in some kind of duo phallis feast.
To complete my Venn diagram, both my parents are Jehovahs Witnesses. So whenever people say to me “what a fine pair of knockers”, I mostly think about the two of them. Just kidding. No one comments on my knockers.
As a Jehovahs Witness, I was certain in my belief that Armageddon was coming and paradise was just around the corner.
I am 5. I excuse myself from celebratory classroom activities and celebrations saying “Jehovah hates Christmas, Easter, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, New Years Day, Valentines Day, ANZAC Day, Mufti Day, Harmony Day…Doris Day”.
I am smug in my certainty that Santa is a fictional character. My parents said it’s ridiculous to believe that an invisible man is watching and deciding if we are good or bad.
I am 9. I am enthusiastically preaching at stranger’s doors, warning them about the end of the world. In fact, the only celebration I resented not participating in was Halloween. Knocking on doors to warn people of terrible things – I’d been practicing for that my whole life.
I proudly remain seated and silent when the national anthem is played at assembly because the only sovereign I will pledge allegiance to is God. Also I could never remember the line ,“we’ve golden soil and wealth for toil”.
My dad always said we should be proud to be different. Although, I was sure he didn’t mean I should be proud of the fact that I felt attracted to women. I knew that being gay was a sin, but I just couldn’t seem to pray it away.
I am 14. My best friend and I are excitedly queuing in our swimmers, waiting to get dunked in an above ground, backyard pool. Except it wasn’t in a backyard. It was in the middle of Warwick Farm Racecourse. With over 500 other people being baptised as fully fledged Jehovah’s Witnessess hoping for a chance of surviving Armageddon and having an eternal life in paradise.
While I was not old enough to vote, drink or watch Thelma and Louise, I’m faithfully showing my religious commitment.
I am 16 and have been encouraged to leave school to preach full-time to save the sinners from the end of the world. Things like education and careers could wait until paradise. I can put everything off until paradise. Everything except coming out as gay. That I’d need to put off forever.
I am 21. I’m at Sydney airport, it’s June 1999, the year before the world was going to end (or at least our computers were).
I’ve spent the last 8 years trying to be the best Jehova’s Witness I could be, while waiting for the end of the world. There’s a fine line between delayed gratification and living a lie. I have discarded so many dreams, curiosities and desires that my bin was overflowing and had started to fester. I am depressed, have stopped preaching, and going to church. I’ve even stopped leaving my bedroom.
I am leaving for London to stay with both my brothers who had left the religion years earlier. My desperate email to my brother had prompted him to send me money for flights to escape and regroup with them.
My parents, sister and best friends have all come to the airport to bid me farewell. This farewell is not a bon voyage kind of one with balloons and laughter. I feel certain I will return after a break and everything will be OK again. But they know I’m doubting and that it was serious. There were pleads and tears and long glances as they tried to soak up these final moments. They know I won’t return: to Sydney, to the faith, to their conditional love.
This was the end of the world as I knew it. If I decide to leave the religion, I will be shunned. That unbearable thought was still less unbearable than the burden of living a lie.
My London family rescued me. With no formal qualifications, my brothers gave me time, space and the practical help to get a job and find myself. Thanks to dial up internet, I found lesbian forums and lesbians…and Lebanese forums and lady finger recipes.
I started a new life in London before I mustered up the courage to formally leave my religion.
I lost a lot during this time. I lost my hope for the future, my life long friends and my close family. My father shunned me as he had both my brothers, not uttering a word if we called or visited. I never did lose my mum though. She put her love above her beliefs and always stayed in touch.
I am 42. It’s 2020. Between bushfires, pandemics and Macaulay Culkin turning 40, I’ve started to think that maybe the world really was ending. Again.
I’m at my parents front door. All I need to do is knock. And you’d think I’d have nailed that by now. I’m hesitating because I’m not welcome here when dad is home. The last time I saw him was 10 years ago – and he had blanked me then. However we are now in lockdown so I know he is definitely home.
Mum nervously greets me. In my arms, an 18-pack of 3-ply Kleenex toilet paper. They are running low.
As I approach my dad, he stands up and says, ‘Hello’. I’m taken aback. So that’s what it takes. The power of the 3 ply.
He looks me up and down and speaks to me for the first time since we were in the airport last century, “Well I guess you didn’t do much exercise while you were in England”.
Now, I appreciate there are many ways one could react to this. I laugh heartily. It’s something I might expect a personal trainer to say after a holiday, not my estranged father who had shunned me for all of my 20s and 30s. He carried on a conversation as if no time had passed.
Now he speaks to me regularly, asking mum when I’m coming over next, excitedly showing off the garden and giving (unsolicited) advice.
I’ve never brought up those years of silence. Why is he suddenly speaking to me? Will he also now speak to my brothers? How long till he shuns me again? I don’t know, I haven’t asked any of these hard questions. And should I? I don’t know. Sometimes I miss the certainty of my religious youth.
All I know is what he says in the prayer he gives before lunch – he thanks God for the food, seeks forgiveness for our sins and hopes I return to the religion during the last days before the end of the world. I’m just glad to have some time with him before HIS last days.
I might be the only one in the centre of this Venn diagram but I don’t feel alone anymore.
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