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Why do queer Arab stories matter?

Why do queer Arab stories matter?

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Opinion Freedom of Expression LGBTQ Community

Friday 26 January 202408:19 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

ما أهمية أن نسمع قصص العرب الكويريين/ ات؟

Colored Stories: A dedicated space for vibrant stories belonging to individuals within the LGBTQ+ community. These are stories of people who have overcome great challenges, shattered taboos, and left a strong mark in the public sphere or in the professional path they chose. Through their perseverance and effort, they have proven that success is not limited to sexual and gender identity, and that dreams are accessible to everyone without exception.

In recent years, there has been a wave of new literature, art, and activism from queer Arabs that have all helped bring greater nuance and understanding to a diverse social group.

While queer books in the Arabic language is scarce, since the 1990s, English and French speakers have been gifted with wonderful books written by and about queer Arabs – from the trailblazing Koolaids: The Art of War (1998) by Rabih Alameddine and Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army (2006), to more recent works by Zeyn Joukhadar (The Thirty Names of Night, 2020) and Danny Ramadan (The Foghorn Echoes, 2022).

Their stories are complex and go beyond the usual narratives of state-sanctioned discrimination or family homophobia and transphobia.

However, it’s still common to see discourse about queer Arabs being reported or discussed with an Orientalist lens. Queer Arabs also usually appear in media headlines for sensationalist reasons, painting the community as passive victims of a patriarchal culture. These are also often used as an element of white saviour complex, or an undercurrent of Islamophobia and racism.

Queer Arabs usually appear in media headlines for sensationalist reasons, painting the community as passive victims of a patriarchal culture. These are also often used as an element of white saviour complex, or an undercurrent of Islamophobia and racism.

An example of this is the recent discourse around Iraq’s attempt to criminalise homosexuality and make it publishable by death, and the lack of context as to why lawmakers are pursuing this. One can argue that the 2020 wave of homophobia that occurred in response to the EU, Canadian and UK embassies in Baghdad each raising the rainbow flag for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia was a crucial turning point (among other things) in prompting this proposed law.

Meanwhile, stories that have a profound impact on the community often barely get reported in western media. Examples include the state-enforced persecution of Kuwaiti trans woman Maha al-Mutairi in 2021, Jordan’s new cybercrime law that could potentially be used to target the country’s queer community (even though an amendment to criminalize the promotion of homosexuality was refused), and the recent attack – led by far-right Christian group "Jnoud el Rab" ('Soldiers of the Lord') – on a Beirut bar because it was hosting a drag queen show. In other instances, the feelings and advocacy work of affected communities were overlooked, as demonstrated when the death of exiled queer Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy grabbed headlines in mid-2020.

Western media only seem to be interested in stories from our community when it follows a certain script, often in the form of “trauma porn” or essentialist, religious-driven narratives, or when it’s in response to something that is in the headlines.

Indeed, news affecting our community do need to be reported, and I support anyone who is given a platform to share their story. But my issue is with those who gatekeep our stories. Why is it that they only seem to matter in those circumstances? Why is it that space is rarely ever created for us to just be, to express our lived experiences how we want? Why can’t we talk about any other aspect of our queer Arab experience – whether our queer identity comes into it directly or indirectly?

On the flip side, queer Arab stories in Arabic-language media and literature rarely make an appearance, mostly because of state censorship laws. On the odd occasion when they do, the negative stereotypes are rampant and dehumanising, and as we have seen in recent months in Lebanon, authorities seemingly have no issues with clamping down on and using the queer community as a political football to bolster support from the public and to distract from other, more pressing issues. The homophobia, transphobia and misogyny that comes in response to these can sometimes lead to having serious impacts on the queer community’s safety.

It’s also common for authorities or leaders to say homosexuality is a mental illness, even though groups such as the Lebanese Psychiatric Society debunked such myths. We are also constantly told it’s a “western import”, even though queer people exist in every part of the world and have done so since the dawn of time. In more recent decades, we’ve had the likes of Bassem Feghali gracing mainstream Lebanese television with his style of drag, but Arab pop culture history is littered with queer narratives, and some of this is highlighted via the Instagram archive page Takweer.

During my stint as the editor of Star Observer, Australia’s longest-running queer media outlet, I remember using wires copy for articles around Daesh’s reign of terror in Syria and Iraq, and the horrific accounts of them throwing gay men off rooftops. Not only did these reports lack nuance – which one could hardly expect if there was a media blackout in Daesh territories anyway – but the gruesome killings were weaponized as an inaccurate stereotype of the queer Arab experience. For example, often when people learn that I’m gay, Palestinian, and support a free Palestine, I’m told to 'try being gay in Gaza and see if Hamas would throw me off a rooftop'.

These are all just some of the many reasons why I published This Arab is Queer last year – a passion project consisting of 18 non-fiction stories and essays from a diverse set of queer Arab contributors. Each writer shares a personal story that is close to their hearts that they haven’t had the platform to write about before now. It’s a space where the microphone is entirely the writers’ own. Readers will find stories of love and pride, courage and retributions, humour and lust. Each chapter asserts our existence and agency as a community, while also celebrating our varied experiences.

This Arab is Queer is also a prime example of why our stories matter, and why queer Arab voices need to be centred as much as possible. Speaking over us is not going to go down well, and speaking for us would need to be done with caution and self-awareness. Through this direct engagement with the community, we can help bring about positive change. It’s not the only way, of course. But it’s one of many.

* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

Elias Jahshan is the editor of This Arab is Queer: An Anthology by LGBTQ+ Arab Writers, published through Saqi Books. Instagram & Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan


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