As a child, you hate sticking out the way you do: weird house, weird family, weird language. But your father calls you a princess, claims his uncle had sworn to royal blood even on his dying day. Regardless of the truth, you believe him, brand those words to your skin. What matters isn’t the possibility of power but the connection to a place you’ve never been—a place that calls you back. You are a part of me, it purrs. Your name is the breeze of my people. Your heart was buried within me before you were born. Curl up in my arms: you are the monster I call back home.
As a teen, you know you’re different: weird house, weird family, weird language. But also, weird body, weird feelings, weird changes. You begin to tell people you’re a boy in a girl’s body. It isn’t quite right, and over the years, you will amend that: a gay guy in a woman’s body; a trans woman in a cis woman’s body; listen, you want to make your mom happy and perform womanhood the right way, all right? But these conversations with yourself happen years later; you have no conception that there is no “right way,” that there is no “true womanhood.” When you’re a teen, all you’re concerned with is making your mother angry by wearing baggy clothes; you’re concerned that you might like girls and kissed your best friend to find out but didn’t like it; you’re concerned that you haven’t waxed your face—which you started doing when you were twelve—in four weeks and have more facial hair than the boys in your class doing No-Shave November.
As a college student, you don’t know what to do with your difference. The boy who binds you inside yourself teaches you to hate your body as he looks past you. The two of you sit in the cafeteria, him counting each bite you put in your mouth as you pretend to push food around but really count the minutes until you can escape. He tells you about a transitioning friend, and you both lament not understanding why, if “the two genders” are meant to be equal.
Years later, you think back on this scene and the words you didn’t know to say, didn’t even have yet sitting at the pit of your stomach, waiting to hurl themselves through your esophagus and out your mouth; you didn’t know how to taste I think I understand how your friend feels and our world is built on these fake rules and I’ve forgotten that I used to feel my body’s inability to contain all that I am and all that I want to be, that your focus on your hips and thighs and stomach might mean something more than just your weight.
As a college graduate, you marvel at your difference and rage at its invisibility, then rage that you’re not grateful for its protection. You rage as the first person you sleep with tells you’re American because you’ve never seen the mountainous Alborz your parents once called their backyards; you’ve never held your breath at the glitters of the Caspian, its blue neither the glint of gems nor the pale sky but a promise reflected in one thousand and one nights and every epic of every king; you’ve never seen the streets of Tehran to nod along when you parents reminisce and wonder how it’s changed. Instead, this boy who barely knows you, who thinks your fleeting intimacy means he can dance under your skin, insists you’re definitely American; you’ve lived here your whole life.
It’s funny that he doesn’t insist you’re a girl, perhaps because you can’t bring yourself to push the point when he’s supposedly teaching you how to be a woman. The way you and he move through the world shadow each other because white people hate you both, but the similarities end there; eyes track him and ignore you. Yes, you resent him, and hate yourself for resenting him; you should mutter an Alhamdulillah that your colors aren’t reflected in the shades of your skin, that your father’s brown only glances across your face in the summer, if the sun is kind. White is the reflection of all colors and so is no color: does that mean your shades of olive and cream aren’t more than reflections of light?
As a spouse, you listen to your partner speak to his mother in Spanish, sit silent as he remembers back to visits to the place where his parents were born, the place where once white men came and claimed to be their own. He learns his grandmother once taught him words in Aymara, that his great-grandmother was Indigenous to the land his parents call home, and he wishes he remembered. He wishes he were more.
You wish so, too, not Spanish but Farsi, words you still speak with your parents but with a heavy tongue. Time is eroding your knowledge like each passing night as Scheherazade fumbles through the deepening layers of the story: first the fisherman, now the djinn, then the king, then his vizier—the fisherman caught the bottle and began all this, remember? How do you say fisherman in Farsi? You stutter through the words and stumble through the script of a language you learned first, the tongue you call home, before English became your voice in this world: when your grandfather lays dying, you’re barely able to apologize for never asking about all the things he composed in his head to tell you when you finally plucked up the courage to try.
As a voter, you hold your breath on that November night in 2016. You go to bed knowing the truth. The next morning, you sit on your couch for two hours and cry, and as the cats comfort you with headbutts, your fingers find comfort in their fur. Your breath comes in rattles and gasps; your chest heaves with sobs the weight of a bride-price destined for the rope; when you go silent, you feel the drip of blood splattering the pavement around the country as people begin to understand what this means. Scheherazade’s finished the story, her stay of execution released: the morning’s come, and with it, the king’s ire. Your father laughs off your fears, and you try to hold back the screams: your family’s congressman is Paul Ryan. Your father’s name is Mohammad Ali.
You send an email to the head of your lab that you’re not coming in for a while. You send an email to the director of your Ph.D. program to tell him you’re leaving. You change your pronouns and buy a binder two months later.
As an adult, you run the silk scarf through your fingers and wrap it around your hair to stare in the mirror. What you see in the gesture isn’t submission to God or the symbol others use to announce your people’s oppression. What you see is a declaration of where you belong. With the scarf, perhaps you’ll be seen. Perhaps you’ll be believed. But you have to put the scarf down, not because one time you wore it and two boys driving by called you a cunt and laughed, not because you see stickers in white and blue declaring for a man who has spent four years doing his damned best to destroy every one of your peoples, and not because you’re afraid. You put the scarf down because it’s been three years since you’ve owned who and what you are and are tired, so tired, of people calling you ma’am.
Yet still, you debate. You finger your hooked nose and smooth your thick brows and hold onto the times people do a double-take when they look at your facial features, when they see your name. You wonder why it is so important for people to know you are not the color your skin believes you to be. Others are branded because of it, hated because of it, killed because of it. Around the nation children are dying, adults are dying, and you are given the gift of blending in. You are given the privilege that comes with pale skin. You are overlooked in a crowd where your husband would be viewed with suspicion. You claw at your arms with nails you’ve torn off, pick at scabs on your legs until they bleed. Anything to give you color. Anything to mark you as different.
You suppose you should be grateful, but you’re not. Thousands of years of history and culture flow through your veins and are erased with a glance away. You beg to be seen, even if it means being ostracized. The people you hear on the radio, the ones who flee to or from their home countries, whose last names the anchor cannot pronounce: these are your people. They are accused of destruction and murder and terrorism and you want to be seen as one of them, too. Better to be hated than invisible.
But if you’re going to be seen, then you want all of you to be seen: you want people to know that you married a cis man but could have loved another; you want people to look past the swell of your hips and chest on the days you don’t bind; you want to hold up all your pronoun pins and stickers and wave them until the world stops pretending you’re someone you’re not. Until your parents are forced to stop calling you their daughter. Your dad once called you a princess, but what is the name for royalty who rejected being royal not to be one of the people, but to be anyone but? What if Scheherazade could have saved herself and her sister by calling the king out instead of telling him stories?
Of course, this is your privilege talking, too, telling you to cast it away where another might find it. You want to stick it in a lamp, wrap it around the djinn’s ring, grant those wishes to the people who are dying for it, but you can’t. Instead you pass by, wishing they could see you as you do, and knowing they don’t.
Naseem Jamnia (they/them) is the author of the critically praised queernormative, Persian-inspired novella The Bruising of Qilwa, which was shortlisted for the IAFA’s Crawford Award, and the upcoming Sleepaway (Aladdin 2025). In addition to the inaugural Samuel R. Delany fellowship, they’ve received fellowships from Lambda Literary and Otherwise. A Persian-Chicagoan born to Iranian immigrants and former neuroscientist, Naseem now lives in Reno, NV, with their husband and four furred creatures. Find out more at naseemwrites.com