Of Dark Rooms and Foreign Languages — Momina Masood


What do you call fuck in Arabic? Or cunt in Urdu? I have no language I can want in. Is there a word for the georgette of a black abaya against an arm? And does the Urdu-speaking populace all orgasm in gibberish, or complete silence, flailing to find words in the dark. Or do they just scream.

Urdu doesn’t know androgynes and girl-boys, Arabic doesn’t know how to blaspheme in grief. To be a Pakistani today is to know half-languages, to always not find the word, to not understand because it had never been spoken. I couldn’t come out in Urdu. I couldn’t come in Urdu. Being queer, and orgasms, are experiences which I borrow. Without the word, does the thing exist at all.

A professor once said, no matter how much you love English, you will still dream in Urdu. My dreams have no language, I would have liked to tell him. And what does it matter? We’d all like an identity, something to hold onto, something which is nameable and unique. We’d all like to be legitimized. A year back, I wanted to learn French. I really didn’t know why, I thought it would be wonderful to know another language. A small department in a popular public university offered classes. Young girls with hijabs on welcomed us in fluent French. The four-room department didn’t exist in real time, it was set apart from the rest of the city. Its biggest room was the library where we sat, the walls lined with French translations of everything. There was Kafka and Iqbal and Dickens crammed together in one shelf. They all came together in a foreign language, in a country of georgette and cotton, outside the brick lane to the department painted with crushed jamuns. I don’t know how to speak French, as I don’t know how to write the Urdu alphabet. But then again, you don’t write Urdu. You draw. I could never learn.

I take this as my coming out. In a language not my own, the language of “the masters”, the ones responsible for this ultimate non-place without history or language, a country which is better taken as a phase, something you eventually leave or outgrow. But I know no other way. I know no other language. But who do I come out to? The family speaks their Urdu and Punjabi, they have no words for a queer girl-boy, for a lesbian, for a transgender, for a non-binary, for an asexual voyeur. For anything and everything I am and could be. I have no language either for wanting a penis and to fuck men with it. A language for want, for wanting, for escaping, for whoring, for dying. For fucking. For leaving.


When you were 13, you left a period stain on the dining table chair. Your mother scrubbed it off with a toothbrush, as you stood with a bowl of water in your hands. Younger, you stood similarly as your mother ripped off your soiled school uniform trousers with one hand, while trying to keep the bathroom door closed with the other. Women walked past the door, the smell of roses and jasmine wafted over you, and your mother left you inside the bathroom, asking you to clean yourself off. The running tap water made you shiver. You were not ashamed. You ran your fingers down your wet legs, and smiled. Outside, the sound of the نات خواں grew louder.

Now 13, or 15, doesn’t matter, you love to draw patterns in your period blood. Locked inside the bathroom, you squat and bleed on the floor, always a bit surprised with the first drop. You never had a word for periods you liked. Mother called it menses, and it made you sick. The Arabic حيض sounded too rough and harsh, like all of Arabic to your ears. But then you didn’t have a word for most of your body. Much of you had always been unnameable.

Like me, you don’t dream in a language. You too have English professors who lament the death of Urdu as if it was something which belonged to them, something they owned. You speak Urdu with a regional accent, always slurring your ر’s, and for you English has been a way out. It was a language your parents didn’t speak very well, it was a language you could hide in. You would listen to English music, blacking out explicit CD covers with a marker, and would hum under your breath. You could only swear in English, you could only orgasm with a yes trapped in the back of your throat. Now 17, or 24, or 43, you have learned foreign words to name your body. You still don’t have a word for periods that you like. Or for the sound of running tap water. Or for shame.


I write without hope to a foreign reader, I come out to you, for to you I am legible. But to you I am also unpronounceable, I am nameless in another way. During my visit to England early this year, a woman with whom I made acquaintance would later complain, stumbling over my name for the last time, asking if she could just call me Mona. I said it didn’t matter. Another acquaintance asked me with fascination how many languages I spoke. None, really, I should have said. Maybe a few but not really. I don’t know the words that matter in any language. My country is not really a country, it’s what we call it, to make it be something. It has no language that belongs to its people, just several languages all half-known and little understood, all borrowed or imposed or learned in secrecy. Would he have understood?

I learn new languages for words I still don’t have, to name myself, to name who I am becoming. To learn to come out, or to make the closet visible, or inhabitable, just anything, but to move away from the not-knowing, the gibberish and silence, the mute orgasms. To find words for the want. For the body. For the incommensurable loss.


Eventually, you stop reading the smaller Urdu print between the Arabic. You read aloud from the Quran because you’ve learned to find music in your mispronunciations. You no longer try to find what anything means, it doesn’t matter, you overlook the Urdu translation. You eventually forget to read Urdu at all. You lose friends. Your professor claims you have a colonial mindset, and you must decolonize yourself, and go back to your roots. You have betrayed something, you don’t know what exactly. You try to learn how to say grapes in Farsi, and man, and thank you. Immigrant friends teach you how to count in Italian, and you confess you have forgotten to tell apart ۲ and ۶ in Urdu. You learn French numbers instead. You learn, but you are constantly forgetting. And losing. You no longer remember where your allegiances were supposed to lie. An Indian friend tries to teach you how to say yes in Hyderabadi. You have nothing to give back. He will eventually break your heart, and tell you your people are all the same. You have been looking for your people ever since.


I could only write this half-naked, my lips numb from hot milk, stopping once in a while to cup my breasts. Muslims love drama. If nothing else, religion does leave you with love for the spectacle. And the erotic. There’s nothing more erotic, after all, than the hijab. Young Pakistani Muslim girls famously wear abayas to sneak out from colleges and universities to go out on dates. Girls covered up in black are still seen suspiciously by many; the niqab is worn mostly for anonymity than for pleasing any god. Some women wear it so they wouldn’t have to shave and conform to standards of grooming and hygiene. Burqas are garments for the queer body, for sexual deviants, for young horny college girls. I have worn one many times in the past, especially when I had to immediately go out after a violent bout of ill-timed masturbation. It just hangs in the closet these days. I couldn’t give a fuck anymore.

There’s no outside of the closet that exists for my people. There are only dark rooms and foreign languages. We don’t come out, we shapeshift. Every now and then, you’ll see me and I’ll see you, and we’ll recognize each other from the way our hijabs are pinned tightly around our necks, choking us to some secret pleasure. You’ll speak a language I couldn’t ever learn, and I’ll ask you a different word for چاہت. I’ve always been visible, you’ll tell me. And I’ve always been so many things I couldn’t name. And yet you have known. I have always been legible to you. To the queer girl-boy without a clitoris, fumbling with her burqa, we have always existed in spite of the many languages which claim us. And we have always known our way out.

Momina Masood is a graduate student based in Lahore, Pakistan. She tweets at @momina711