This Arab is Queer: A seminal moment in the Arab world's production of queer knowledge
Elias Jahshan’s recently published book, This Arab is Queer, is a collection of seventeen experiences from the queer community of 11 Arabic-speaking countries and the diaspora of South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA).
This book is crucial for those in the West seeking to understand the intersectional experience queer identity in MENA. The stories are authentically written by the book's contributors through diverse styles of expression and conceptualisation of queer-related issues.
The authors tell their personal stories as artists, activists, novelists and business owners living in their homelands and in the diaspora.
In some cases, writers show examples of growing up in a conservative Muslim household, like Mona Eltahawy who had to perform the character of a 'good Muslim girl', who wore the hijab and did not practice the joy and pleasure of her sexuality in either Saudi Arabia or Egypt.
"I often ask myself, is the author using a Western lens because it is written in the English language? Would this be entirely different if it were written in the Arabic language? If this book were translated into Arabic, would it be relatable for a queer person living in a remote village in Lebanon or Iraq?"
Similarly, Hasan Namir discusses being raised by his grandmother in Iraq who expected him to behave like a conservative Shia. Such forceful compulsion led to Hasan feeling ashamed of his queerness at the age of ten.
In the United Kingdom, Amrou Al-Kadhi’s chapter elucidates how he was raised on strict Islamic doctrine which led to his dismissal of their identity as a non-binary person.
Some writers show examples of transnational activism like the stories of the editor Elias Jahshan in the book's introduction and Khaled Abdel-Hadi who founded My. Kali Magazine – a queer/feminist/intersectional webzine for the MENA region launched in 2007.
Abdel-Hadi and Jahshan both felt the desire to connect with other people somewhere else around the world and so each, separately, created platforms for other queers from the SWANA region to document and share their stories.
The stories are powerful reflections of growing up queer in different locations. For some, trigger warnings may be needed as many stories talk about traumatising experiences related to coming out, or simply just being queer and Arab.
Language, privilege and intersectionality
This Arab is Queer contributes to queer knowledge production from people of colour through the documentation of stories from places such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. This is exceptionally important.
This book is a valuable addition to the literature on queer lives, which is overwhelmingly written by and about white Europeans.
The stories show the existence of a diverse community, yet the language used often applies a Western lens through concepts such as Pride, coming out, rainbow flags and even the abbreviation LGBTQ which mostly targets Western readers.
I often ask myself, is the author using a Western lens because it is written in the English language? Would this be entirely different if it were written in the Arabic language? If this book were translated into Arabic, would it be relatable for a queer person living in a remote village in Lebanon or Iraq?
Most of the contributing writers have the privilege of having Western passports that allow them to move and live between different countries and access Western academic institutions.
While reading most of the stories, the writers did not acknowledge how much privilege they have as queers from the SWANA region with Western passports.
On a socio-political level, some writers blame their conservative or religious society, rather than perhaps blaming the pervading authoritative infrastructure that intentionally keeps societies ignorant and leaves marginalised groups without protection.
Even when recognising these privileges, the perspectives of the contributors in This Arab is Queer are valuable contributions to queer knowledge production.
Unfortunately, from personal experience, the queer community in Jordan or Lebanon are often afraid of spending time with academics and writers from the West, regardless of their ethnicity or authenticity, and we are looked down upon. Our queerness and social interactions are used as case studies for Western academic institutions.
Many of the writers highlight the oppression experienced from their multiple identities as women, queers, trans, Arabs, Muslims and Black in different places across the globe and how that oppression manifests differently from one place to another.
Those oppressions deserve some unpacking. The Black academic Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe the ways that different systems of oppression – such as sexism, racism, islamophobia and queerphobia – intersect and are inextricably linked.
We must pay attention to these intersections to understand the writers who are subject to these structures and navigate multiple marginalised identities. There are not enough spaces that welcome someone like Amna Ali who is Somali-Yemeni-Emirati, Black, Muslim, Arab and queer.
Furthermore, as highlighted in Saeed Kayyani’s chapter, Arab men are hyper-sexualised for their ethnicity and often must perform traits of hyper-masculinity.
They note that on dating apps such as Grindr your sexuality is welcomed whilst your Arabness is not. In addition, they encounter the expectation of Westerners that a queer Arab should be grateful to live in the West rather than risk being killed in ‘Arabia’.
I find this book very relatable to the diaspora communities living in a transnational context. It is about how identities manifest differently from one place to another, for example, being queered as an Arab or Muslim in the West while also being queered for non-normative sexuality at home.
I appreciate this book as it gives a platform for diverse writers from the queer community to share their stories of everyday experiences that are often talked about but most of the time are left undocumented.
Editors Note: The article has been amended to reflect a mischaracterisation of one of the authors and their work.
Hasan Kilani is an activist and writer on queer feminist politics in the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @HasanAmman