By SYDNEY BRASON Although she faced certain challenges, Maya* left her life in Egypt to attend New York University. With graduation next month, she has no plans to return to Cairo because living in America has changed her in ways not possible back home. As a gay, Arab Muslim, she sees herself as being “torn between two cultures.” Despite the pressure to return to Egypt, she plans to stay in America so that she is not forced to live a dual life, pretending to be someone she is not. As of now, she has one goal: to earn a graduate degree in poetry and break ground as a queer, Arab poet.

*Subject’s name has been changed for confidentiality purposes.

Can you describe what it means for you to be “torn between two cultures?”

For me, the experiences I have had since coming out sophomore year have been so positive. I feel accepted and loved in the gay community. But at the same time, coming out was hard because it almost felt wrong for me to be who I am. Being a gay, Arab Muslim woman is a hard combination to identify with. The Arab world is known to be the harshest to the gay community. But living here I have more rights being gay, and people have shown me that it is okay to be who I am.

What was your life like growing up in Egypt?

I grew up very fortunate, but I was surrounded by an impoverished slum. I was Westernized and privileged, but I was exposed to poverty my whole life. Both of my parents were born and raised in Egypt, but they had me while they were living in the states temporarily. When I was less than a month old, they moved back to Egypt. I consider my high school experience to be fairly similar to an American’s. My school was very westernized, so speaking Arabic was almost discouraged.

Was there a defining moment during your childhood?

We used to travel to the states often, but we stopped after 9/11 because of the stigma of being Egyptian. I remember as a young girl asking my mom why we were Muslim. Once the Iraq war started, I became the brown person. I would listen to American music and dress in American clothes, but at the same time I still felt second to Americans.

 Did you experience any difficulties when you decided to leave Egypt for college?

Women and girls had difficulties. My older sister wasn’t allowed to leave for university, so that made me nervous. Many girls in my own grade were discouraged from going abroad for college, but most of us ended up leaving because at that point it was easier and more accessible. My dad was very against it because of the idea that I was going to live in a dorm with boys. My grandfather was actually the one who pushed it. He believed in me, so he funded the whole thing and insisted that I go. Even to this day, my dad would have preferred that I had stayed in Egypt.

Was it difficult to adjust when you first moved here?

I had never been exposed to American culture the way I was when I first moved here. The reason I wanted to go to NYU was for the diversity, because I didn’t want to feel like an outsider. But when I first got here, I had never seen so many white people in my life, so I felt like the only brown person. That adjustment was hard at first. Living in New York City I am very conscious about being an Arab woman, not just because of my accent, but I just feel different sometimes, even marginalized. But other than that, everyone here is diverse in terms of their open-mindedness, and that is what has made it easier for me to adjust.

What made you decide to major in social work?

Social work was something that I found interesting, and I knew it would allow me to help other people. Because I grew up so exposed to poverty and conflict, I felt that I had empathy for people who were going through troubling experiences. I eventually want to do social work within the LGBTQ community. Being gay and coming from a country where homosexuality is shunned, it is so important to me to be involved in that here in America.

When you went back to visit, did you feel different?

The first time I went back to Egypt was the biggest shock of my life. I could see the fakeness and secrecy of society in Cairo. Going back made me feel more American than Egyptian, and I knew from then on that it wouldn’t be the same. It was almost heartbreaking, because my friends that stayed in Cairo for college had nothing in common with me anymore. My Egyptian friends would almost make fun of me for coming back “American.”

Did your parents notice that you had changed?

My mom definitely realized I had changed. Ever since the first time I went home to visit, she will say to me on the phone, “matinseesh nefsik” which means “don’t forget yourself.” She reminds me to not forget my “Egyptianness.” She will say that to me when I talk to her about liberal things, or when I’m speaking too much English. She doesn’t want me to forget my people, and who I am as a woman in Egyptian society.

What are the things you miss the most about Egypt?

I miss my culture. I also miss the closeness and affection that Egyptian people show each other. Egyptians are very loyal, while Americans are very individualistic. People here are so concerned about achieving their own goals, no matter who you have to throw under the bus. It’s very cut throat. In Egypt, we’re very laid back, and we help each other out.

Do you feel any pressure from your family to move back to Egypt?

My parents want me to move back to Cairo eventually. Most of my friends are already planning on going back after they graduate, because it’s almost an expectation. But for me, it’s different, because I’m gay and I don’t want to live in a country that will hate me for being me. So going back to Egypt is much more a possibility for others, because for me I almost feel unsafe. It’s more of an obligation that I need to go back and visit. But eventually, I will have to give up my life there because here I have these rights that allow me to be who I am. I can wear my ripped jeans. I can be who I want to be, which is a chill, laid-back, happy person who is working and succeeding. I feel a beautiful comfort here that I don’t think I can ever give up.

What are your plans for when you graduate?

I decided that I want to go to grad school for poetry because I love to write, but I also feel like the things I have to say are different from what you normally read. Studying poetry will be my way of combining my social work studies with my passion for creative writing. I can offer a controversial type of writing that people aren’t normally exposed to, because of who I am. Queer Arab poets do not exist. So being a gay Arab woman who has never read anything that is specifically relatable to me and my life has made me want to change that.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.