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Finding the Words: Arab Writers on Queer and Feminist Expression

/ 09 Jul 2019

Finding the Words: Arab Writers on Queer and Feminist Expression

LONDON—Deena Mohamed’s female Muslim superhero Qahera is seen as defying the norm—not because she has super strength or can fly, but because she does those things wearing a veil. Qahera is now a feminist icon for women in Egypt, but that wasn’t the intention when Mohamed, a 24-year old graphic artist, sketched her first adventures.

“People tend to assume my work represents all Egyptian women or that it represents the feminism of today,” she said during the opening session of Shubbak @ The British Library. “Really it just reflects a different point of view that is uniquely my own.”

Six years after creating the Qahera web comic, which has over 750,000 views, Mohamed is a little disheartened to find that a strong woman wearing a hijab still comes as a surprise. “It reinforces the stereotype,” she said in an interview.

Representation was a recurring theme at the event, held last Sunday, when novelists, poets, journalists, translators and graphic artists from across the Arab world gathered for a day of discussion on new works in the fields of feminism, queer writing, Kurdish fiction, and other forms of writing. The event formed the literary chapter of the biennial Shubbak Festival, which showcases contemporary Arab culture in theaters, concert halls, cinemas, art galleries, museums and outdoor venues across London.

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The theme for the fifth edition, questioning the norm, champions Arab artists who are probing established narratives and reimagining traditional definitions.

“We aim to shift the discourse about our complex relationship with the Arab world,” said Eckhard Thiemann, the festival’s artistic director. “The privilege of a festival is that we can offer a multiplicity of voices, different aesthetics, different opinions all in a short time. This combats a unilateral and simplistic reading of the many expressions of Arab artists.”

An attentive audience listened to a panel discuss new feminist writing at the Shubbak Festival (Photo: Merass Sadek).
An attentive audience listened to a panel discuss new feminist writing at the Shubbak Festival (Photo: Merass Sadek).

New Interpretations of Feminism

Starting the day with a panel titled The Endless Wave: New Feminist Writing, Mohamed and a co-panelist, the Saudi journalist and chat show host Badriah al Beshr, discussed the need for flexible interpretations of feminism that reflect different countries and contexts—and the diversity of thought within them—across the Arab world.

For al Beshr, who has written widely on issues affecting Saudi women, the current wave of feminism calls for supporting the individual through localized responses. “We have to make it more relevant,” she said.

In the past, issues facing Saudi women were fixed, she told listeners, ticking off some of the recent hard-won gains for women in the kingdom, including the right to drive and increased female participation in public life. She sidestepped prompts to criticize the Saudi government for imprisoning female activists who campaigned for some of these freedoms. These are security issues, she said. “It’s not for me to discuss right now.” (See a related article, “Women’s Advocates Go on Trial in Saudi Arabia.”)

In Egypt, a crackdown on freedom of expression has made a degree of caution necessary among writers, artists and activists. “In theory we might have a lot of rights but in practice we don’t,” said Mohamed, whose debut graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik won the award for best printed graphic novel and the grand prize at the CairoComix Festival in 2017.

She outlined two types of feminism in Egypt: a state-sponsored brand and grass-roots activism, which operates within a very stifled space. The result is a sanitized feminism that “tiptoes” around issues that need to be addressed. “Right now we’re scraping for leftovers.”

Censoring the Gay Experience

Censorship was explored from other perspectives during a panel headlined Bold Voices: New Queer Writing, where the poet, playwright and actress Dima Mikhayel Matta joked—without divulging too many trade secrets—about the loopholes LGBTQ artists exploit to share their work in restricted environments. Censors who ask why a piece differs from the version submitted may hear that the piece is “in progress,” she said. Also, art galleries are often used instead of theaters because they face fewer restrictions.

“Publishing can be practiced underground, which is even sexier,” added the artist Joseph Kai, to loud applause.

For Kai, an editor at the Lebanese comic collective Samandal, homophobia is the “eye that is always there, reading whatever I’m writing … searching for sexuality.”

Kai, whose works explore the unspoken, marginalization and gender, spoke of different forms of homophobia in Beirut. The city is considered one of the region’s most liberal and was the first in the Arab world to host a gay pride week in 2017. But the fragility of these freedoms was made clear last year when authorities forced the cancelation of Beirut Pride and detained its organizer, Hadi Damien, overnight.

“Homophobia very much exists in Lebanon,” said Matta, who said she feels safe in her Beirut neighborhood but plays straight at work to avoid being fired.

But she and others said they were not out to “normalize” the gay experience.

Khaled Alesmael wrote a “gay Syrian novel,” that foregrounds the gay experience against the background of the Syrian revolution. But at the moment, the book is only available in Swedish (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).
Khaled Alesmael wrote a “gay Syrian novel,” that foregrounds the gay experience against the background of the Syrian revolution. But at the moment, the book is only available in Swedish (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

Getting Published, but Not in Arabic

Syrian writer Khaled Alesmael, who was also on the panel, said authors should mix homosexuality with other issues in their work.

His first novel, Selamlik, foregrounds the gay experience during the Syrian revolution to challenge the exclusion of LGBTQ people. “I like my book to be called a gay Syrian novel,” Alesmael said. In a society that often denies homosexuality exists, Alesmael  wanted to “save the oral heritage of gay life in Syria,” to chronicle the places he frequented and the men he met before war swept them away.

Alesmael published his book from Sweden, and at present it is available only in Swedish. The erotic nature of the story makes it difficult to find an Arabic publisher, he said. “From the first or second page, they tell me this is too much for us to publish because of Middle Eastern sensibilities.”

That’s a hurdle many queer Arab writers face. There were several mentions of Saleem Haddad’s celebrated novel Guapa, about a young gay man navigating his sexuality in an unamed Middle East city. It was written in English and translated into over 15 languages, but not Arabic. It’s up to Arabic publishers to change their sensibilities and bring these novels to Arab audiences, Alesmael said.

Writers talk about their work and about the need for “flexible feminism” during a session on new feminist writing (Photo: Merass Sadek).
Writers talk about their work and about the need for “flexible feminism” during a session on new feminist writing (Photo: Merass Sadek).

‘Forming Our Own Narrative’

Language carries other considerations too. Matta told audiences that she felt compelled to begin her play, This Is Not a Memorized Script, This Is a Well-Rehearsed Story, in part because of the lack of queer Arab women writing in English. She examines her choice in the play’s opening monologue: “I’m an Arab but I’m talking to you in English, am I performing for you? I am, aren’t I. What happens when I perform in a language that is not my own? I sound a bit off, don’t I. Like I’m one degree away from myself.”

Educated in English, it’s easier for her to find expression in the language, not least because some words for the queer experience have no Arabic counterpart. “In the Arab world, we’re trying to invent a language that is not directly translated.” Gender is still “jendr”, queer is “qeery,” Matta said. “So much of what we are is viewed through a Western lens. … It’s about forming our own narrative.”

But leaf far enough back through history and a precedent for the queer Arab experience emerges. When he started writing, Alesmael would switch from Arabic to English for sex scenes. “I thought that there was no Arabic to express gay love.” Then he dug deeper into the heritage of his native tongue and found a literary movement under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties when homoerotic expression flourished among the writers of Andalucia, Aleppo and Damascus.

Then it was just a matter of weaving in modern-day dialect to create a Middle East novel that chronicles homosexuality in Syria and ties it into a growing number of contemporary narratives that make queer Arab life visible in places that have kept it hidden.

“This story needs to be told,” Alesmael said. “It’s a revolutionary time for the Arab countries and the Arab world.”




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