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Without Family Ties










Introduction


It is accepted in the spiritual world that when a boy reaches the age of thirteen, he is capable of making decisions based on his free will. This raises the question: What does a thirteen-year-old know about free will? But there is an answer: His soul does. I moved at the age of thirteen, made a non calculated move of my own free will. Leaving my parents and siblings behind, I moved from not just one city, not just one country, but one continent to another—and have never looked back since.

There are ten players in this journey, and one traveler: me. I have traveled since birth, experiencing, with each of the players, the way each impacted my life in some form or another. I salute everyone of them, with gratitude.

If this book touches one member of the LGBTQ community with his/her coming-out process, impacts one young teen with his/her awkward family upbringing, or affects someone struggling with his/her soul-searching process, then my goal will have been accomplished. Enjoy, and thank you for reading my story.




Summer of 2007


Let me start my story in the middle. I was getting ready to go to Israel for the first time. The trip was with the kabbalah center from Los Angeles, California. It happened to be around what is known as the High Holy Days. I was so excited; I had always wanted to go to Israel. We were going on all the tours to the most ancient sites and places most tourist cannot get to, and I could hardly wait.

A month before the trip, an old friend of mine, Maria Cina, whom I had not seen for years, had insisted on stopping by on her way from downtown. She arrived soon in her husband, Blair’s, Porsche with no shoes on. She is gorgeous with or without shoes on.

She came in. We had a glass of wine and began to chat and catch up. She suddenly paused and asked, “How’s your love life?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“I see him,” she said.

“Him who?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, but I see him. Have you made your list?”

“What list?”

“The list of everything you’re looking for in a man, partner, soulmate. I did one before I met Blair, and he’s everything I wrote on my list, with the exception of one thing: he smokes. I didn’t write ‘non-smoker,’ so be very specific with your list!”

“Okay…sounds good,” I said.

Shortly after Maria left, I began to write my list. It was very specific and a page long.

A few of the bullet points on the list were:

  • He has a career and is successful

  • He has a sense of style and likes music

  • He is spiritual and not religious

  • He has a hairy chest

  • He is someone who wants to walk next to me and not behind me

  • He will support me in my growth process


On Labor Day of that summer, a week before I left for Israel, I had decided to go to Palm Springs for a quick weekend. It was, after all, the last holiday of the summer, and at the time I owned a condominium there, so why not? And off I went.

One night I was out with friends at a local bar—nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone was looking for a good time, and the town was full of tourists. As I was doing my rounds in the bar and being my normal social self, I noticed this good-looking guy sitting by the bar. He was very white, with very blond hair—very short blond hair…your typical American-looking guy, and handsome, may I add. He wasn’t dressed in the typical bar attire, which made him more interesting to me. He was well built and masculine enough to fit my mold, or to fit some of the items on my wish list. His name was James.

I am not the shy type, so naturally I introduced myself. He replied kindly, and his look implied interest in me. We began conversing, and I learned he was visiting from Seattle, Washington. Shortly after that I noticed he was drunk. I don’t like drunks. It’s a big turn-off for me. He didn’t have a car and was staying at a hotel.

To my surprise, I noticed a casual friend of mine also had an interest in James. At this point, all I wanted was to make sure James got to his hotel safely. I asked my friend, since he was interested in James, to give him a ride to his hotel, and off I went to enjoy the rest of my night.

The following day, my friends and I decided to go out for drinks in the afternoon. That’s all one really does in Palm Springs besides eat and sit by the pool during the day. As I was walking around, who did I see—and in a much more sober condition? Yes, James. I looked at him, and he looked at me. He said, “Hi, Sam.”

I was impressed that he remembered my name, especially after how drunk he had been the night before. I greeted him in return, mentioning how impressed I was by his remembering my name. We exchanged beers and began chatting, he introduced me to his friends from Seattle, and a good time was had by all.

It was time to go. I did what any normal gay person would do at the time: I invited James for a drink at my place. He accepted, and I drove us back to my condo. In the car, I played a CD: Amy Winehouse Rehab, one of my favorites, which turned out to be James’s favorite as well. He liked music, and what’s more he had almost the same taste I have. Another item from my wish list—yaaaay.

We got to my place and ended up talking for hours about life, my background, his background, our respective likes and dislikes. It turned out he had a gay brother who lived a mile away from me in Los Angeles. Aha—a good reason for James to come visit me in L.A. Things were shaping up, and eventually we slept together.

James was flying out to Seattle, and I was leaving for L.A. the following day. We said our goodbyes and exchanged phone numbers. I was back focusing on my trip to Israel, and all was good in the Sam West world.

Later, in October, I got a call from James, telling me he and his friends were coming to L.A. for Halloween. It turned out that it was his favorite holiday. He loved getting in costumes and dressing up. That was his childlike side, and it was fun to watch. I was happy about seeing him again and hoping to get together. So I asked him to let me know when he was in town so we could make plans.

Halloween evening was approaching, but no word from James. I knew he was in town because he’d texted me, telling me so. I had plans of my own to go to a very well-known club in downtown L.A. called the Mayan. You might remember it from the movie The Bodyguard , with Whitney Houston. I had friends visiting from Palm Springs, and off we went. Sure enough, who did I run into? James.

He paid very little attention to me, but I wasn’t about to let it ruin my night, so I moved on and made the best of it and enjoyed the company of my friends from Palm Springs.

The next day, James called me and wanted to know if he and his friends could stop by to soak in my hot tub. I had just had one installed. This should have been my first inclination that this was not for me. I simply replied, “No. I am in for the night, but the next time you’re in L..A, maybe you can make some more time to see me.” I can be harsh at times and have no problem saying what’s on my mind.

A few weeks later—now it was November—he called and suggested that perhaps I should visit him, since I’d never been to Seattle. He had a two-bedroom condo, and if things didn’t work out, I would have my own room. I was impressed with his directness and kindness. We agreed on a date in December: the weekend after Thanksgiving, which coincided with my birthday. The weekend before my birthday, I was still grounded and going with no expectations—just planning to have fun and to get to know this person and Seattle. He had just moved into his new condo, so I bought him a little housewarming present: a candle with the initial “J” on it. Simple but nice.

The city was cold, dark, and rainy. I wasn’t used to dark, cold, and rainy. I was an L.A. boy. But I kept my happy face on. We had great conversations, dined out, and James showed me the town and its landmarks. One time, while we were at a place that crafted handmade soap, he sneaked in and bought me one bar for my birthday. He also loved making music CDs and handed me one of Alicia Keys’ latest CDs as another birthday gift. I was having a great old time and never had to spend any time in the guest bedroom.

The new condo he had just purchased was still in the process of being furnished. He had very different tastes in furniture than I do. His tastes ran to the modern; I had done the modern thing back in the eighties. There was no judgment on my part, however. Once, while we were conversing over coffee, I did mention how different our taste in furniture were. He replied, “If this is the only issue we will have, then we’re good.” That cheered me up.

One night, we were out for sushi, and on the front of the restaurant door there was a Christmas wreath, so I asked him what he was doing for Christmas. He looked at me and smiled. “Why the smile?” I asked.

“I’ll be in L.A.,” he said.

“Maybe you can stay over,” I said.

“Let’s see how you behave the rest of the weekend,” he said with a smile on his face

This is something he would say. He never rushed into anything, unlike me, who was already envisioning him coming to L.A., spending time and staying with me, and me being a great host like he was being for me.

The time came for me to go back to L.A. James drove me to the airport and told me he’d had a good time. I was like, “Great! We’ll talk later?”

“Yes,” he said.

I went on with my life and sent him a coffeemaker as a thank-you gift. He needed one in his new condo.

Apparently I scored lots of points by doing that—not that I was looking for any. It’s just the kind of thing I would do when I’m interested in someone He sent me a thank-you note, telling me, “That was very thoughtful.”

Around Christmas of that year, he did, in fact, come to L.A. to see his brother. We spent two days together. L.A. was nice and sunny, unlike the weather when I was in Seattle. I took him to my favorite place in Malibu for lunch, Geoffrey’s over looking the ocean. After eating, we walked on the beach. He happened to have his camera and asked a stranger to take a picture of us on the beach. He being so white and me so dark, it was the perfect photo by the water. That was a step toward a two-year long distance love relationship.

He went back to Seattle and invited me to visit him for New Year’s. This would be our third visit together in a matter of a month. Of course, I said yes, and of course, I went. We had a low-key New Year’s: just the two of us, dinner and a movie, very adult-like. James represented everything I was searching for on that list I had made after my friend Maria came by.

Our next visit together was in L.A. during MLK weekend. I felt so safe that I showed him the list I had made after my discussion with Maria. James was shocked at how much he matched the list. Later I found out having a wish list is not necessarily a good thing. As the saying goes, you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans, or in this case, show him your wish list. The universe wanted so much for me, the universe wanted to give me what I needed, not what I wanted.

I had never thought I could find someone in the gay world with his qualities or appeal. He calmed me down and excited me at the same time. He was responsible and fun, and conservative, all at once. I felt complete. All my Jewish friend referred to him as the mensch. We began to date long distance. Now I officially had a boyfriend I could be proud of, and my life seemed to be complete. I had my home, my family (or family member), my career, and now a boyfriend.

James was very close to his mom and siblings. Although he lived in Seattle and his mom lived in Idaho (where he had been born), he had picked a city that he could live in that was still geographically close to his mom. This was very much unlike myself and my mom and siblings and was something I never understood, but I admired it at the same time. I began to share my life story with James.



1961


I was born Hossam Shehata, in Cairo, Egypt, on December 4, 1961, to a Muslim family. It was the third candle of Hanukkah in the Hebrew calendar, known as the month of Kislav, the month of miracles. I was the youngest of five, and there was a twenty-two-year gap between myself and my oldest sister, whose name was Laza. We lived in a small two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom, in a three-story brick building, in a middle- to lower-class neighborhood.

There was a movie theater around the corner, where we would go to watch movies in the summer. It was an open sky theater, so it was fun in the summer, except that you didn’t want to go on a Sunday. That was the mechanics’ day off, and they usually went to the theater and ended up fighting with one another over who looked at whom the wrong way or who took whose seat.

Our building was on a tight street with lots of traffic, noise, and parked cars—the usual scene in Cairo. There were two beds in each room and what they called the “nice living room,” for guests.

There was a public school across the street, with the biggest pile of trash on the corner. That pile remained there for years, or at least until I moved away in 1975. The city wouldn’t and didn’t care to touch it.

I do not remember what the sleeping arrangements were. I remember sharing one of the beds with my youngest sister, not my brother. The bathroom was cold and small, and I hated it. I always had a thing about clean bathrooms and kitchens.

For years, I thought I was adopted, because I was very different from any of my siblings.

I was very different not only from my siblings but even from the common kids around my age. I always liked Western music and dancing, while the other kids played soccer in the street. When I was around ten, I got a 45 rpm record of the song “Come Together” and loved it, even though I didn’t know who sang it. (It turned out it was the Beatles.)

I liked to paint and collect stamps. I had the biggest stamp collection! I had long, beautiful, straight hair. Most of the other kids didn’t have straight hair like me. I drank milk before I went to bed, which was very uncommon. I didn’t like the Muslim culture. Something about it did not make much sense to me.

At the age of six, I ran away—at least, I think I did, although everyone else claimed I simply got lost. At any rate, they found me hanging out in the market with a fisherman. It was a running joke that I might have been adopted. At times, I thought I really must have been. It would have made a lot more sense of things. But adoption then was unheard of, at least where I grew up.

My dad prayed five times a day, although my mom could not care less. Luckily I wasn’t forced to observe or raised in any religious way. It gave me time to think and choose. It also created confusion for a young boy such as I was. I didn’t seem to fit in my then-current environment, yet I was only a kid. What could I do but live with this conflict?

I loved Western films. I must have seen The Sound Of Music a dozen times as a child and knew every song by heart. My sisters and brother didn’t know what to make of me. Right before I was born, my oldest sister, Laza, met this nice man and married him. His name was Ragai. Laza was traditional and conservative, very light-skinned, with dark hair. She looked identical to Omar Sharif’s ex-wife. And she had a law degree. Ragai was educated, more cultured than my sister and my family, and also very traditional and conservative. They were the perfect match for each other and certainly nothing like the rest of the family was ready to handle. Ragai was also Coptic Christian.

Christians could not marry Muslims in those days, nor were Christians looked up to, even if they were cultured and educated. In order for Ragai to marry Laza, they lied to my mother and told her that he had converted to Islam.

It was a family secret that would haunt Ragai for the rest of his life.

They became the caretakers of the family, since they were the oldest and most responsible of the


bunch. I became their 100 percent focus, in addition to their looking after the rest of the family. They loved me immensely, almost to the point I could not recognize who were my actual parents—my parents or Laza and Ragai. I could relate more to Laza and Ragai, but I had to ultimately listen to and watch my crazy mother and my silent father as they parented me. Laza and Ragai made sure I was well dressed and well fed and in the best school.

Laza and Ragai put me in a private school right after elementary school. The school taught English and was full of high-society kids. Most of their parents were actors or singers or from some high-profile profession—something I could not relate to. After all, my mom and dad did not know how to read or write.

That was another family secret I had to keep until I finally was able to say it publicly in 2016, with no shame or guilt.

I think I was six when I was finally circumcised, and thank God I was. Ragai bought me a wooden rocking horse as a present to make me happy. I’m not so sure if riding a rocking horse right after being circumcised is such a great idea, but it was a cute horse. I do not remember any details of this event except for the rocking horse. My brain has blocked this incident for some reason. I don’t even remember if the procedure was painful or not…if I cried or not…if I was afraid or not. All I remember is the wooden rocking horse.

Ragai hated living in Egypt. He thought he was being discriminated against for all the right reasons. He wanted to move to the USA and talked Laza into it. She was devastated to leave her family and especially me. She loved Egypt for all the wrong reasons. But ultimately Ragai got his way, and they moved to Los Angeles in 1969. The family never recovered after that, and it was the start of a downward spiral for them.




1969


Ragai thought it was a good idea to leave Cairo and build a life in the West with more possibilities. Laza had an incredibly hard time leaving my mother, the whole family, and most of all me. For some reason or another, she agreed to leave with Ragai—after all, they were married—and I think deep inside she knew she could do more from within the USA if she only allowed herself to. They left on their new journey in 1969.

The family fell apart right after that. There was no one to command the ship. Who was there?

  • A mother who was always in a state of chaos

  • A father who was perpetually silent or was gone all day and most nights

  • Siblings constantly fighting all the time over which plate to use, with the fight ending up in a physical confrontation of some sort.

I have very little memory of my childhood, however, up until the age of thirteen, which is when I left Cairo to go to the United States. All I remember is the fighting between my mother and brother and sisters. They were always fighting—and I mean bloodshed—on an almost weekly basis, especially on Fridays, as that’s when everyone was home. We were known in the neighborhood for having family confrontations—after all, the walls of our building weren’t soundproof.

It was another of our family’s dirty secrets I was ashamed to hold title to.

My mother was very dominant. She felt the louder she was, the more her voice would be heard. My dad did not dare speak when she was around. Remember, neither of them could read or write, but for some reason she had the chutzpah (audacity) to stand in charge.

My mother was keen to have all the kids finish college. My oldest sister had her law degree before she moved to the U.S., even though she never practiced after she arrived here. She did practice law in Cairo, however. My brother and other two sisters ended up with accounting degrees. My brother, however, after getting an accounting degree and encountering lots of misfortunes and what I call family abuse, and after losing his sense of self, became a cab driver and died before he reached fifty. My second-to-oldest sister managed to do well at work, with a steady job, bullying her way through life, only to end up dying of cancer around the age of fifty. The third sister—the fourth sibling from the top chronologically—became very introverted, very religious. She was the covered-from-head-to-toe type. She got married and quit working.

So, as I said, I have very little memory till the age of thirteen, when I left Cairo for good. I could count specific memories on one hand with fingers left over.

I remember one birthday. There was a party, and like any child I was so excited and looking forward to presents. My brother kept on teasing me with a box he had for me, and I was so eager to open the box. Once I finally did, it turned out to be a pacifier. Mind you, I was at least eight years old.

That’s another dirty secret I do not usually share.

One day, my mother and brother were fighting. At this point the reason for the fight doesn’t matter—they always fought for one reason or another. The fight escalated to a physical altercation, leading my mother to take all my brother’s clothes and throw them over the balcony onto the street. Shaming was big in my family. Her actions infuriated my brother, and rightfully so. Not knowing what to do, and being so angry, he punched his right hand into the kitchen glass door, leaving his hand with a permanent scar till the day he died.

I remember one fight between my mother and my second-oldest sister. A bullying daughter and a dominant mother—this could not turn out well. I must have been ten years old at the time. After an intense fight, my mother crumbled and decided to drink gasoline to just end it all. Except she didn’t instead—she simply ran away, I think to her brother’s, leaving the household unattended. This


ultimately made my second-oldest sister into a monster and weakened my mother, at least for a short time. I felt abandoned and lost, frightened, not knowing what would come next. Unfortunately, when I became an adult I developed similar characteristics to those of my mother.

I remember watching Oliver Twist, the movie, in a theater down the street with my second-oldest sister. That same night was the night the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, died. The theater had to make an announcement and cancel the movie somewhere in the middle. Everyone rushed out of the the theater in a state of panic, as if the world had come to an end. My sister and I walked home, with me feeling so disappointed that I didn’t get to see the rest of the movie. (I did eventually see the whole thing after I moved to the USA.)

One Saturday afternoon, my third- and fourth-oldest sisters went to watch the movie Macbeth. I went with them and really enjoyed it, even though I was probably too young to understand it. It didn’t matter; I was always happy to watch American films. I was never too big on action or sci-fi movies, and in fact, to this day I still do not care for movies of either of those genres.

Most of my afternoons, after I came home from school I would take a nap, then get up to do my homework. I’m not sure why the nap was part of the schedule. But when I napped, I would close my eyes and envision myself somewhere where I had a house—a real house—with a pool, or even horses, like I saw in the Western movies. I always said, “One day I will have one.” I always watched the episodes of the TV show “Flipper. I love dolphins.

Of course, I also remember the day I got circumcised.

•••

I was aware from a young age that I was attracted to men. I was probably ten or younger when I reached this realization, although I didn’t know what to call it. There was a family upstairs with three boys, one my age, one younger, and an older one. I felt an attraction to the older one and the younger one, but not to the one my age.

The older one was always wanting us to play sexually, although I did not know what to call it. I very much enjoyed it, however, and this eventually led to playing with the younger and middle brothers.

The older brother became a regular player at a sexual brand of hide-and-seek when no one was around or watching, and this went on until I finally left Cairo at the age of thirteen. I never felt a sexual attraction to women, and I didn’t know what to call the feelings I had. For now, let’s call it another dirty family secret—except I didn’t think it was dirty at all, it was only a secret

I think that as a child and even for most of my adult life, I never knew what my father did for a living. He retired shortly after I was born, but I never knew what he was retired from, nor was his work or his workplace ever discussed. He died without me ever finding out. I do think it’s strange that I never bothered to ask, but I also think I was ashamed to find out.

During my schooling in Cairo in private school, and while hanging out with the high society kids of Cairo, I was ashamed to share my parents’ illiteracy with the other kids. And although I was a good-looking kid, smart enough, and could engage enough, I was carrying another dirty family secret. I managed, however, to twist reality to protect my identity.

I began telling my friends that my dad was in charge of the train system. That came about because I had heard somewhere from someone that my dad might have worked for the train system. Of course I had to elevate it to a much more important job. That made me look enough like a somebody in the eyes of the other kids.

I was in an all-English-speaking private school, so I couldn’t have been that much of a loser, but no one in their right mind would imagine I was living in a household with illiterate parents but educated siblings. This drama went on till I was thirteen and finally got to leave Cairo.



1975


In June of 1975, my youngest sister and I got invited to visit Laza and Ragai in the United States. I was thrilled. I could finally show off to my schoolmates: Look who’s going to the USA for the summer? Yaaay— me.

My mother made me a new suit to wear on the plane. It was a rosy pink color. Very gay ghetto, if you ask me now, but my mother thought it was cute, bless her heart. I was so excited to go that I was counting the seconds, but somewhere deep inside me, I knew I was not coming back. I was saying goodbye with the pretend “I will see you later.“ It was a lot to handle for a thirteen-year-old, but the soul knows what it wants, and miraculously I let my soul direct the movie.

I had two friends I was close to and was sad to leave them: Mohammad, who lived down the street from me and was a few years older, and Wael, who was my age and my school buddy. I had a crush on each of them and was very close to Mohammad, since he knew my parents and my household situation better. Wael knew me only through school and school trips.

I remember being on the plane with my sister, very excited and not wanting to wear my seat belt—just because. She and I fought over it. I said to her, “Why couldn’t I hold on to the wing from outside and see how long I can hold on for?” I was very serious about this question. To this day I hate wearing seat belts, although for other reasons. I am a Sagittarius, a fire sign and we hate being tied down.

July 4th was my first holiday in the USA. I had been enjoying this dream that had become reality for just a month now. Laza and Ragai decided to take us to Disneyland to show us this famous place, and wow! What a place! As you can imagine, I was pretty much in heaven.

And then came the Fourth of July parade, when they sang the American national anthem. I didn’t know what the Fourth of July stood for, let alone what the anthem was. All I can tell you is, listening to the song for the first time, even not knowing its background, I still got goose bumps, and till this day I remember that feeling. It felt like home; it felt familiar; it felt like I was no longer in a strange environment. All I wanted at that point was to learn more and see more and do more and conquer everything in this city called Los Angeles.

Laza and Ragai had a one-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor in a nice neighborhood, with a pool and a view of the hills. This was a lot more than what I had left behind in Cairo. A month later, Laza and Ragai invited my mother to join us. I was so excited to show my mom all these new possibilities. I was hoping we could all transplant ourselves to this new garden of Eden and leave all the old darkness behind. Then we could have what I’d always hoped for: peace, progress, sophistication, and above all a family in harmony.

Well, I guess you could take my mother out of Cairo but you couldn’t take Cairo out of my mother. Most of the time she was in L.A., she complained about one thing or another. I got it that it was a foreign land, and she had nothing in common with anyone there. Above all, she was very familiar with chaos; that was all she knew, but there was none to be had since we had come to Los Angeles. We were experiencing grocery stores like we had never seen before, air like we had never smelled before, parks and pools like we had never seen before, and clean streets with no trash around like we had never seen before.

Somehow the seeds were planted that I should start school in September, and perhaps I should move permanently to Los Angeles. I’m not sure how it started, but I always knew I was not going back to Cairo.

I was like a kid offered a piece of candy and grabbing on to it before knowing what’s inside. I said yes and yes without thinking any of the details through.

I was not fluent in English and had no friends in Los Angeles. I was thirteen and had never lived abroad or even simply away from my mom. Not knowing what any of this would look or feel like, I said yes. Yes to the challenges, yes to the possibilities, and yes to the unknown. No wonder I eventually


became a hard-ass, bring-it-on adult.

Just like that I was signed up in a private junior high school. It was a $120 monthly fee. Laza and Ragai were very protective of me, and that was their way of showing their concern. They actually were afraid I might learn some curse words if I went to public school. Little did they know a lot more went down in private school than just learning curse words.

Shortly after that, it came time for my mom to travel back to Cairo and leave me in the United States. I will never forget that day. It was somewhere in September. We dropped Mom off at the airport, and I couldn’t stop crying. Crying is very common when saying goodbye to family members at the airport, but I was crying for different reasons, reasons that no one was aware of, reasons I couldn’t express enough without feeling awkward.

I was crying because reality had finally hit home: My vision of everyone staying together was not happening, and now I was left to my own decisions and whether I wanted to follow through with my life-changing decision or not. Laza and Ragai had made it very clear to me that If I wanted to go back to Cairo, I could, and if I wanted to stay with them, I could. Either way, the decision was mine. I decided to stay.

My sister had had two miscarriages in the past, and I never knew the reason, or what their plan was for the future. It was never discussed that I was going to have a little nephew or niece to hang out with anytime soon. It was one of these not-discussed topics.

Ragai took the sofa for a bed, and I shared the bedroom with my sister. That’s how kind they were to me. This arrangement persisted until we finally moved to a two-bedroom apartment when I began high school. I began living and quickly getting acclimated to my new surroundings. It took no time—in fact, I wanted to call Laza and Ragai “Mom” and “Dad.” I don’t know if that was because of my shutting down the past as if it had never existed, or because I am fundamentally messed up in the head.


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