Whatsoever wears the shape of anything in existence
has come from the shadow of the beautiful Simorgh.
If Simorgh unveils its face to you, you will find
that all the birds, be they thirty or forty or more,
are but the shadows cast by that unveiling . . .
Do you see? The shadow and its maker are one and the same.
Invisible CitiesMaybe I’m practicing perfect detachmentMaybe I’m closer to God.
II. Cities and Signs: Tamara
L’Aurora delle trans cattive The Dawn of the Bad Trans
Your life,your real life. life vita hayat‘omr life‘Omr
III. Cities and Memory: Isidora
Working toward my PhD in epigenetics, I learned that the border between our bodies and our ancestors’ is not so well defined. During pregnancy, the placenta invades the uterine wall, forming a direct line to the parent’s body. Through the blood, a fetus deciphers the waiting world, modifying the epigenetic marks that control the expression of genes. If a fetus has ovaries and eggs, then the conditions of the pregnancy impact not only the fetus itself, but also each of their eggs, and thus their potential children.
What this means is that, by the time of birth, an infant’s body has done its best to prepare for life based not only on the experiences of their gestational parent, but also of their gestational grandparent. Intergenerational trauma and resilience are both present to us literally, physically. Part of us was there.
I know my mother’s gestational parent as my Grandma Rosie. Before being pressed toward marriage, Rosie rode a motorcycle with the Motor Maids of America. Early members of the group were accused of being man-haters, troublemakers, lesbians; eventually, they cleaned up their image with a pink uniform and white gloves. My grandparents didn’t approve of my parents’ interracial marriage, and Rosie was cold and rigid with us. When I was older, though, racked with my own dysphoria, I wondered whether a hidden Rosie didn’t hunger for another life, whether my own cells didn’t contain the same restless hum.
IV. Cities and the Sky: Beersheba
The Italian newspapers say there are 400,000 trans people in Italy and 2.7 million Muslims, and I know because I exist that some of them must be the same people, but I can’t seem to find them. I could fill a book with the things I’ve found instead of the divine. In Milan, a doctor asks me whether my (Muslim) family still speaks to me, touching my scars and sucking her teeth.
At least in Europe, she says, you’re safe.
But I know this isn’t true because over and over, searching for God, I have found whiteness and its violences, found smiling men who told me what bodies like mine owed them. After I left my first marriage, I started to pray. I touched my forehead to the ground in train stations and in rooms hardly big enough to kneel. I washed my hands and feet in bathroom stalls and in the sea, of which the Prophet (pbuh) said, Its water is ritually pure and its dead are lawful.
My father did not teach me this. I imagine he had reason to feel betrayed by God. For years, I assumed our language barrier had caused his silence. Then, as I wrote this, I found a 300-page novel he’d written in English, pursuing his characters from Syria, to Paris, to Rome, to New York. The protagonist—Wasn’t I worth speaking to?—is a boy named Omar who believes his father loved him.
V. Cities and the Dead: Argia
I didn’t hate my body. I didn’t have one. I spent twenty years in ghost country, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever feel that close to God again. Now God is a neighbor laughing in the next apartment. In ghost country, other people were muffled and far-off no matter what they did to the flesh I piloted. Every so often, I’d slip a finger through a crack in that dissociative wall—a sunset, a swim, a day of fasting—but without a body, I couldn’t pass through.
After top surgery, and especially after starting T, I begin to inch my way to the other side. If angels could envy, someone told me, they’d envy humans the ability to desire. In Miyazaki’s Ponyo, a goldfish princess transforms into a child through the force of her want. Maybe this is another way to say desire is central to personhood. Or: I transitioned because I desired to exist.
On pandemic lockdown in Sardinia, sometimes I imagined my father in his room in Rome, a young man, maybe not yet cruel. In his window, a warm light, an easel. I picture him as though he’s the only person who can understand my loneliness. I don’t know what he’d say were he to pass me on the street, should the shadow of his invisible city bleed into mine. But my dead know something of me. The day I cut my long black hair, I became a slice of glass cis people looked through. My body averted eyes and struck silent friends and kin. The dead had told me long ago of the moment people decide—clean as a snapped twig—that you do not exist.
VI. Cities and Desire: Despina
In the Qur’an, the abandoned Hajar, seeking water for her son Isma’il, runs seven times across the scorching valley between the hills of Safa and Marwa, and God reveals to her the spring that will become the holy Zamzam well in Mecca. Surat al-anbya: We made from water every living thing. Water carries the memory of its source. Water in which paper inked with the word of God has been dissolved is said to be holy. Some part of me is still crouched in the darkness of my childhood bedroom, desperate to dip a hand into water that will purify me, and I want to turn away from this, but I cannot. The path out of that place must spring from within its borders.
Grandma Rosie and my father were not people I loved dearly. I don’t want to think about their pain, because I want my pain to be singular. Then again, maybe I want there to be a pattern so there can be meaning. Maybe I want there to be a circle I can close.
VII.Continuous Cities: Cecilia
The Tiber, too, has its god, Tiberinus. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Tiberinus appears in a dream toAeneas, the Trojan hero destined to become the ancestor of the founders of Rome, disguised as an old man veiled in green and crowned with reeds. Aeneas already knows his destiny and Rome’s from the spirit of his father, Anchise, in the underworld. To reach him, Aeneas sought the guidance of the Cumaean sibyl who bridges the worlds of the living and the dead, her immortal body its own liminal space. Aeneas followed her instructions, obtaining the golden branch for Persephone, descending at the crater of Avernus, and entering the mighty city of Dis enclosed by its triple wall.
Finding his father in the Elysian Fields, Aeneas tried three times, in vain, to embrace him. Anchise’s prophecies of Rome’s glorious future will serve as propaganda for the empire that will soon arrive on the banks of my ancestors’ rivers. As for Aeneas, he now knows he must sail his ship up the Tiber. It is not the otherworldly city or its visions that frighten him, nor did the sibyl caution Aeneas against entering the country of the dead. No. She warned him:
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labour indeed.
VIII. Cities and Eyes: Valdrada
Before testosterone, few people ever saw me cry. Now tears come in hot floods, as though some tender, unlanguaged creature has surfaced inside me. Toxic masculinity and transmisogyny have long used testosterone as a scapegoat for their cruelty, and before I came out, some of the people I love had never questioned this. They feared I would become an angry predator because it is easier to blame a hormone than to reckon with the violences of patriarchy.
On testosterone, I become happier, more sensitive, so soft that I can be gouged by their well-intentioned grief. I do my best to forgive them because I love them. People tell me grief is a natural response to a loved one’s transition. To me, it’s as though I’ve murdered some beloved stranger, some acquaintance who leaves every party just before I arrive. I fear they’ll always see me as a shadow of some better version of myself, a fantastical me I’ll never become.
Testosterone makes the body memories return: the smell of turned earth the fall I got my period, sweat on the backs of my legs as I attempted my first novel, a clumsy kiss with the high school boyfriend who once wrote a story in which I was a man.Some submerged self returns these moments to me and makes them whole, rewriting them with my new form as though this flesh is the key that unlocks all shut doors.
Not all of what surfaces is a comfort. My father’s body: the open palm I touched only when he slept, the terror, one afternoon, of his hand pressing a knife to my throat. Now the black hair that springs up on my chest is his.
Before testosterone, few people ever saw me cry. Now tears come in hot floods, as though some tender, unlanguaged creature has surfaced inside me.
Don’t misunderstand: I do not fear, searching for God in my body, that I will find my father there. Rather, I fear I must go back for the child who survived him. I want to surrender to the sacredness of my transness as one accepts a gift. This is what Islam means: surrender. I am searching for the seed of what is good in the self. I need a rope to pull that abandoned self from the mirror, a prayer to allow the boil of me to rush from the jug.
IX. Thin Cities: Zenobia
In the months leading up to starting T, my father comes to me in a dream wearing his gray driving cap. We’re walking to a train, hand in hand. The crowd is laden with suitcases. He says, “You must endure,” and I’m afraid to ask what he means. He gets on the train, empty-handed. He looks back.
I dream I’m on a ferry in a storm and drop my passport into the sea. I reach for it and fall in—I’m going to drown—but I’m lifted by a pod of whales. I flail and sob and then go limp, lashed by rain, fixed by a great, cow-like eye. The storm washes away cars and buries a city in sand. After, I wander the wet streets, bereft and clean. When someone shakes me by the shoulders and demands to know where I am going, I laugh, I laugh, I laugh.
Zeyn Joukhadar is the author of the novels The Thirty Names of Night, winner of the Lambda Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award, and The Map of Salt and Stars, which won the Middle East Book Award and was a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards and the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. His work has appeared in the Kink anthology, Salon, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He guest edited Mizna's 2020 Queer + Trans Voices issue and is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers as well as a mentor with the Periplus Collective.