It is a daunting task for a book to try and address both the Lebanese Civil War and the AIDS epidemic in the United States but the text quickly reveals an implicit understanding that no piece of work could comprehensively cover either. That is, the book was already aware of its own shortcomings and instead provided personal narratives that drew on universal themes to make sense of events and lives that would otherwise seem nonsensical in their extent of violence and pain. The universal becomes elucidated in a non-contrived way that does not flatten sexual or racialised identities down into oversimplified tropes and ideals. Instead it pokes at them and questions how we ultimately view and treat ourselves and others.

In navigating these complex landscapes and lived realities, a lot of the characters are confronting violent disruptions to their everyday life. As time went on both these ruptures became so normalised that they almost took on the nature of the mundane. This is particularly important in tracking the lives of gay men during the Lebanese Civil War as both Middle Eastern sexuality and Middle Eastern politics are often viewed through an exceptionalist lens that tries to place them in opposition to Western “normality” – a notion that is quickly dispelled through the parallels in experiences between the book’s two geographical locations. Instead the majority of the experiences in the book are either marked directly or haunted by the spectre of death. Death becomes intertwined with sex and the characters’ sexual lives as both death and sex come to be markers of the ambivalent in what is otherwise extraordinary circumstances.

In highlighting the “everyday” in the lives of diasporic gay Lebanese men who either escaped or experienced the Lebanese Civil War, Koolaids shows that neither the Arab or gay identities are mutually exclusive. It also signals that frequently our interactions with these identities and how we view ourselves as a consequence is often marked by our external circumstances and how little control we have over them. “When everyday life becomes upended, everything hinges on control. In thinking about his Lebanese Identity, Mohammad says, “I do not want to be considered Lebanese. But that is not up to me… Nothing in my life is up to me.” (Alameddine 1998, 243–44).”

So while sexuality is a central theme in the book, it only becomes central to individual’s identities when certain social frictions corner people into reacting to these labels. Whether that is being poorly treated and ignored by the Reagan government or being ostracised and derided by a Lebanese family. The parallels drawn between those two realities act as a critique of the orientalist and patronising view of Lebanon and the Arab world’s relationship with sexuality while exposing the hypocrisy implicit in American society.

Along a similar vein, the book troubles the idea of Islam being the crux of the problem when it comes to sexuality or political upheaval and violence in the Middle East by showing that all religious sects in Lebanon were party to the conflict. This becomes an issue when rhetoric used to counter this sectarian violence comes in the form of rallying behind the idea of a united Lebanon. Upholding the nation state as the point of allegiance that should supersede all our other differences unfortunately provides no consideration of the oppressive homogenisation that also brings. But in the face of so much violence, it is understandable why many will resort to another form of group belonging that can bring all the “right” people together in order to avoid any further bloodshed.

This is exemplified in the relationship between Nicola Akra and Samia Marchi, which although is a heterosexual affair, it is deviant in a number of other ways. She’s married, he’s a violent aggressor and they are on different sides of the war. It’s a relationship that also must be hidden and would not be approved by society. In comparison to what is considered abnormal in the United States, it becomes clear that in every system the state imposes a particular form of conformity which has dire social consequences.

When the characters choose to identify themselves as Lebanese versus referring to others as Lebanese or “countrymen”, we see how this poses a personal struggle for queer people that have to contend with what it means to be Lebanese. In one passage, the protagonist mentions that he hates being Lebanese but has no choice. It is unclear whether this is an internalisation of the racism and fetishisation of Arabs in America (which is put on blast in the book) or if this form of self-hatred and rejection came as a result of their personal experiences of being Lebanese and consequently rejected for being gay or having to endure the violence of a civil war.

In an interview about the book Rabih Alameddine states: “But in Koolaids I said that in America, I fit but I do not belong, and in Lebanon, I belong but I do not fit. This tension between fitting and belonging, I think, is where I reside. I call it dislocation.”2 And although this may be a universally comprehensible and relatable theme, Alameddine understands that the way the Arab world has so far been conveyed in American literature shows no understanding of the nuance that underlies this dislocation. It is an inescapable fate of almost all queer Arab subjects who are aware of the ways they are inaccurately portrayed and feel a need to respond to it. While it can be limiting and often creates oversimplified reactionary art, Koolaids transcends this pitfall by giving us first person narratives from San Francisco residents, Lebanon natives and the diaspora that exists in between.

This is enhanced by the fact that Alameddine seems adamant on avoiding any romanticisation of the ideas of home, memory and nostalgia. The reflections on these topics are channelled through art and bring with them a degree of self-awareness for the characters as well as added depth to their stories. “Contemplating AIDS as art is essential for Mohammad because art has replaced the identity he lost from exile from Lebanon as well as the denial of the virus by much of the mainstream at the time. For Mohammad this stand-in is important, because he is the one who struggles the most with his lost Lebanese identity. Alameddine uses Mohammad’s reflections on AIDS to counter the nostalgia he feels for Lebanon.”3

The idea that art for certain subjects is not simply a pastime or expression of self but a tool for conversing with the world and connecting personal experiences with wider issues is a crucial one. It is part of a larger conversation that needs more attention if we are ever to make sense of these incidents that have brought about so much group and collective suffering. Especially for minority groups that have been ostracised or silenced by a variety of forces. It is also a disruption of what we think we know about knowledge. After referencing Kant and the concept that time and space were created in our minds and cannot exist without perception, we see this line: “Intuition and concepts constitute the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither concepts without intuition, nor intuition without concepts, can yield knowledge.”4 It is an indirect rejection of cold Western rationality that is considered the highest forms of knowledge.

Creating this sense that nothing is ever truly clear or known exists throughout the book. The best example of this being the non-linear narrative structure that disrupts our notions of time and progress. As the stories jump from location to location it is hard to place one behind the other in terms of modernity and achievement. Even though it’s easy to relegate a war-torn country to an imagined barbaric past, the misery endured by the American characters suffering from AIDS almost levels the playing field, bringing us back to the one certainty we all know and understand which is death. “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”5

However the way in which death approaches can fundamentally alter our humanity in the lead up to it. In an interview, Alameddine says: “There is nothing, nothing in this world that teaches us that life is completely fucked up more than war. And civil war in particular. You begin to see the world for what it is: nobody gives a shit about anything. I’ve been shot at, and when I’m being shot at, I don’t care about feminism, I don’t care about gay liberation, I don’t care.[…] We become, at our basic level, completely—I want to say human in a nonhuman way. I can’t explain it more than that.”6

This provides valuable insight into why it’s so easy for societies to override social equality issues in times of extreme violence. Liberation struggles become irrelevant when you’re just trying to survive. Everything is arbitrary and nothing makes sense, making it even harder to apply Western style rationality to understanding these types of situations and easier to frame these societies as being unjust and uncaring. But what these situations create is a subjectivity that is capable of disconnecting itself from others, one that sees its wellbeing existing in opposition to that of others.

When the self is displaced in this way anger can either be destructive or become a useful tool, one that can keep somebody alive. Here we see the differentiation between a virus and a civil war. What does not change however is that in both cases pain becomes a matter of fact and not a temporary disruption, it is the new normal, the everyday and mundane. In that sense Alameddine queers our everyday lives and existence by creating new ones, and in reaction to that, even queer identities must invent and reinvent themselves constantly in order to understand and adapt to their different circumstances.

Using art is a powerful way to achieve this queering of identities and what Koolaids shows the reader is that it’s never about the art itself and what it represents as a piece of work but the relationship the artists have with their own art. The same approach can be applied to sexuality, the thing or label or identity itself is irrelevant, we should be more concerned with the subject’s relationship to it. Especially when it comes to a topic such as sexuality in the Middle East for which we will never arrive to any neat conclusions. Like the subjects it covers, this book offers more questions than solutions and manages to find solace in the unknown, if only through knowing ourselves and loving the people in our lives. But by far I feel like this book’s greatest achievement, beyond its representation, is its depiction of ideas that can only often be conveyed but not captured, whether that’s displacement, love, grief, death or sex.

There is a tendency to oversimplify our understanding of historical discourses on sexuality in the Middle East. To understand sexuality in the region, as with anywhere else in the world, it is useful to track political, economic, social and cultural changes over an extended period of time. What frequently ends up happening in this context however is an over-romanticisation of the pre-colonial era and over ascribing responsibility to the region’s encounter with the West. Since the “Middle East” is a modern creation and the contemporary Islamic world spans far wider than the Ottoman empire and what is now the Middle East, it is important to first clarify that in this piece, I am referring to the Middle East or Islamic world interchangeably as the regions that were controlled by the Ottoman Empire, parts of which were colonised by the British and French in the later stages of its rule.

These complicated and often competing systems of governance and power centres give us a variety of sources to work from but getting an accurate and comprehensive view of pre-modern sexuality in the Middle East is made even more complicated by the fact that certain texts and stories were intentionally erased or changed in order to fit the mainstream narratives. When viewing the available and still intact resources it also becomes clear that it would be misleading to retroactively apply Western frameworks of sexuality in order to understand the region’s relationship with sexuality, especially the elements that were concerned with deviance, “normal” behaviour, sin and sexual identity. That being said, the pre-modern Islamic world also didn’t have its own unified framework for us to understand sexuality through, “As Dror Zeʾevi puts it, “There never was a completely unified view of sexuality, no single coherent internal or external voice to guide people through the socio-sexual maze.””1

On further reading I found two interesting threads to be followed in order to more accurately understand the larger context of discourses on sexuality in the Middle East. The first is the point in history were jurisprudence around sexuality shifted from case-by-interpretations and became codified into law and the second is how competing versions of Islams within the Ottoman empire were utilising sexuality as a tool in order to delegitimise each other and gain more power. Although the readings allude to how sexuality was framed and reframed in some stages of the region’s history, I don’t think they do enough to politically contextualise their significance. This is not an oversight in the sense that political Islam is, like the Middle East, a more recent creation. However since Islam is also capable of providing guidance for governance and that within the Islamic Ottoman empire various power centers were trying to establish themselves as moral and religious authorities, it is worth viewing religious views and rulings as politically potent as we do with modern political Islam. Islam like other monotheistic religions has always been political.

This idea is also complementary to sex and sexuality in the region being viewed as a social issue: “One’s sex category was important for social reasons in Islamic societies—rules that regulated how one related to others in dress, occupation, prayers, inheritance, and marriage varied according to sex.”2 Social harmony was more important than the policing of individual bodies and behaviours. A lot of these rulings were considered to be not just in favour of the group but also the individual’s wellbeing, they were there to protect rather than punish. Gesink points out that premodern Islamic experts constructed biological sex along a spectrum of protector and protected, “rather than “protecting” male privilege, the authors of these texts largely served an individual’s health and religious needs.”3 This is confirmed in Ze’evi who points out that there was an intertwining of sexuality with spirituality with priority being given to fulfilling an individual’s spiritual obligations.

These texts used a combination of Islamic juristic, medical, lexicographic, theatrical and literary sources to try and form an alternative view of an Islamic history that saw sex in a strict binary or was exclusively repressive of sexuality. And while they veered away from blaming current problems surrounding sexuality in the region solely on colonialism, they fall short in analysing how these texts were politicised within an Islamic empire. Good examples of this are how European travelogues weaponised sexuality by blaming the local “deviant” practices or homosexual activities for the political shortcomings of the empire; and how certain practices were erased in the Ottoman empire not only because of their sexual nature but also because they were associated with the threatening Sufis in the 17th and 18th centuries.4

A similar and more contemporary example of this would be how the Egyptian state cracks down on issues of morality and passes more conservative laws at times when it feels threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is done to counteract the accusation that the ruling elite are not pious enough and not the correct protectors of religion. At this point it becomes less about jurisprudence and ideology and more about leveraging Islam for social capital and political credibility. So while these texts admit that they are not comprehensive in their portrayal of the topic, I think that looking at these sources alone without narrowing it down to a specific social, political, economic and geographic context the way literature on sexuality in the modern Middle East does, they seem like disjointed snippets. This is however understandable with texts whose starting point is necessarily responding to overwhelming pre-existing literature that was almost exclusively from the West. They must first prove that an alternative or more “queer” Middle Eastern history exists.

 

Notes

  1. Indira Falk Gesink, “Intersex Bodies in Premodern Islamic Discourse: Complicating the Binary”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Volume 14, number 2, July 2018: 152-173.
  2. Ibid, 154.
  3. Ibid, 153.
  4. Dror Ze’evi, “Hiding Sexuality: The Disappearance of Sexual Discourse in the late Ottoman Middle East”, Social Analysis, Volume 49, Issue 2, Summer 2005: 34-53.

Readings and reviews of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero tend to myopically focus on the book’s depiction of gender discrimination and its anti-patriarchal stance. Through the interaction between the narWoman at Point Zero coverrator (a privileged, well-educated woman) and the protagonist (Firdaus – a former sex worker and convicted criminal), we can better understand the book’s depiction of patriarchal society by analysing the class dynamics between the two main female characters. This also brings into focus the underlying politics of morality and respectability within the Egyptian context and how this influences our ideas of power, freedom and truth.

Historically, Egyptian feminists during the first half of the 20th century tried to distance themselves from any accusation of immorality in order to be accepted as legitimate citizens of the state. Within the framework of the nationalist independence movement, figures such as Safiya Zaghloul embodied the image of the respectable mother and wife that would come to symbolize modern Egypt. Subsequent governments from the 1920s through to the 1950s co-opted the demands of feminists to further serve their vision of a modern Egypt that upheld a national identity but that also conformed to international measures of civilised societies. This was achieved by moving away from veiling and giving women access to increased education and work opportunities. This modern Egyptian woman held a comfortable distance from women who worked in legal and illegal brothels, which often catered to British soldiers, and were painted by both local feminists and foreign missionaries as degraded, diseased and immoral. Even more pointedly they were marked as women who had no families to contain them and since the family was the cornerstone of this new state, they necessarily existed outside of the righteous social fabric.

Thus the concept of agency and choice had already been stripped away from sex work. In the public imaginary, only a woman who was orphaned, penniless and desperate enough to disregard her own ethics could ever possibly turn to sex work. The character of Firdaus challenges this not in the first time she turns to prostitution but when she returns to it after a stint trying to make a life for herself in more socially sanctioned ways. And although she doesn’t mind the drop in her living circumstances, she does become disillusioned when the man she loves chooses another woman over her in order to further his career. This is a turning point in her understanding of certain life truths that she will return to near the end of the book. It is here that she understands that in this society having honour and being a respectable woman means nothing if you have no money. If you are poor then you will not be afforded any of the protections promised by respectability. This is exactly why this book is about class and economics as much as it is about gender and the patriarchy. It exposes the hypocrisy of using morality as the only true marker of social value, especially when used in relation to working class women.

The first time this issue is hinted at is through the initial interaction between the narrator, who is a psychiatrist, and Firdaus. Our first encounter with Firdaus is a rejection of the both the psychiatrist and the world and consequently us as the reader. This throws the narrator into a tailspin of self-doubt because she is a respectable, well-educated, privileged medical professional that was refused by a sex worker on death row. Their respective statuses in society mean that one should bow to the will of the other but in exercising her freedom to say no Firdaus confronts the narrator with the possibility of a different kind of freedom that exists outside the normative social order. Firdaus has effectively levelled the playing field and not let the social rules of class dynamics dictate her actions.

The narrator admits that Firdaus’ “refusal to see me was not directed against me personally, but against the world and everybody in it.” This was the narrator trying to contend with her own ego, before she had yet understood the wider systemic issues at play. It stemmed from the belief that if you follow the rules, you are safe from the violence of the system. She had not yet understood the impossibility of protection from the violent forces that work on all women.  As a woman who had found a comfortable position for herself within the capitalist patriarchal system, it was easier for her to assume that everything was personal (choice, offence, life circumstances). It’s the same neoliberal belief in individual responsibility that refuses to see the multi-layered systemic oppressions in order to protect itself from crumbling under the weight of this terrible truth, that as a woman there is no escaping it, and class privilege was the only thing standing between her and a fate similar to that of Firdaus.

The narrator then doubles down on this class arrogance through her comments towards the warder: “She could not read or write and knew nothing about psychology, so how was it that I had so easily believed her feelings could be true?” and reiterates it again in her comments on Firdaus: “Whatever the circumstances, a doctor was surely to be preferred to a woman condemned to death for murder.” The narrator here is trying to justify her indignation by playing into the idea that poverty makes people bad and less intelligent. This is a common trope in Egyptian culture that was perpetuated by state projects trying to “elevate” the poor, who were also commonly depicted as being backwards and violent in films and television series.

From this point on, Firdaus recounts harrowing tales of abuse and survival, navigating marriage, sexual violence, disembodiment, different forms of employment and her longing for connection and love. Throughout this journey, the reader begins to understand how ideas of morality are malleable and negotiable. Firdaus had done the worst thing a woman could do, which is voluntarily get into sex work, and the worst thing any human could do, which is to kill another person. Despite this, our sense of indignation and injustice as readers sits firmly with her, shifting responsibility away from these “bad” individual acts to the wider forces that led to these situations in the first place. There were many factors outside Firdaus’ control, but in recognising her agency in the face of these factors, Firdaus is able to confront her own death with a sense of freedom and power that is alien to the narrator.

It is a freedom that is engrained in Firdaus’ understanding of the power of truth, one that she constructed for herself and is based solely on her own experiences and lessons. She learns that it can kill, but that it can also take away the fear of death. “When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife. That is why they are afraid and in a hurry to execute me. They do not fear my knife. It is my truth which frightens them. This fearful truth gives me great strength. It protects me from fearing death, or life, or hunger, or nakedness, or destructions. It is this fearful truth which prevents me from fearing the brutality of rulers and policemen.”

I have often thought about this moment and how I would feel or do if I was ever in Firdaus’ position, at the mercy of a violent police officer, being interrogated or thrown in jail. I remember films that used to air on Egyptian television, especially around religious holidays about the history of Islam and how early believers maintained an air of serenity while being tortured for their beliefs, so absolute in their knowledge that nothing mattered but the truth they had found in God and religion. From my current position I imagine a similar serenity. One that comes from the knowledge of the source of their violence, that the forces allowing them to hit me are the same ones that bind them. That I have known more freedom than they ever will, a freedom of ideas and possibility and imagination. It’s part of the reason I wanted to do a degree in gender studies. While I was worried that it would sink me deeper into the abyss of knowing too much about the roots and methodologies of oppression, my getting a clearer understanding of it helped me to humanise its perpetrators. Not in a way that allows for forgiveness but in a way that lets me understand that my oppression isn’t personal and that I will always have agency in the face of it. The more I understand, the more I can navigate it and maybe, chip away at it. And if I’m lucky to do so without incurring destruction on both my mental and physical wellbeing. It is unfortunate that Firdaus was not so lucky.

 

(First published on SocialScienceSpace.com, June 2020)

It wasn’t until I started doing a degree in gender studies that I was told it was OK to use the first person. In fact, we were actively encouraged to bring in our own experiences and knowledge into our academic writing. All my lecturers were women of colour and understood that academe had long placed far too much emphasis on reason, empirical evidence and the quantitative method. They were trying to counteract the limiting and limited modes of inquiry first put forth by the Enlightenment. By carrying on the tradition of ‘the personal is political,’ they were empowering us to bring ourselves into the research and listen to our peers’ experiences, allowing us to see where they converged and to see the nuance in our differences.

Edward Said in his book Orientalism criticises the idea of an apolitical or objective knowledge, especially in the arts and social sciences. He points out that the structures of power that influence government policy are the same ones that dictate what stories we read as children and what literature we consume as adults. It is the same power structures that ensured the white male subject effectively became the universal subject through which we must understand all human experience. The academy and our systems of knowledge production are not exempt from this, and there is no method of research that can circumvent this pitfall better than the first-hand research conducted by scholars who do not fit the “universal” mould of the white male subject.

Once this realisation hit, I started looking up the authors of every piece of academic research before I read it, especially if it was research that dealt with race, gender or sexuality. Positionality counts in research as much as it does in our private lives and interactions. So while it is important to understand the structural nature of racism, the academy must not ignore the autoethnographies of black scholars, researchers and educators. In daily conversations around race this becomes a double-edged sword where some might dismiss personal experiences with racism as a one-off incident or an individual problem, for others it is a necessary frame to understanding how structural inequality affects the lived experiences of people of colour. It’s disheartening to realise that unless the listener can empathise on a personal level, they are more likely to dismiss the statistics and studies that elucidate the wide scale reach of the problem. This is particularly true of black people in higher education, who are wildly underrepresented and underappreciated by academic institutions that are majority white.

That means that in pursuing anti-racist objectives in higher education, institutions cannot solely focus on their research output. They must also look inward and listen to the experiences of their black students, staff and academics. They must value and respond to autoethnographic work, anecdotal conversations, petitions and other forms of communication around racism equally. As a starting point, I as an employee of an academic publisher and a graduate student, decided to start searching for articles written by black scholars on their experiences in the academy and here is a short selection of what I found:

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, discussing how black doctoral studies were introduced as a response to racist and Eurocentric disciplines that had previously tried to erase and distort discussion around black life: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0021934718786124

This article is a critical reflection on the experiences of two male black authors teaching race and white privilege at the collegiate level: https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/10.1177%2F2153368716689490/full

Offering a self-reflective approach, this article guides educators on building the emotive capacity to have difficult conversations around race: https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/10.1177%2F1045159518805890/full

Oum Kulthoum’s Sexuality by Musa Al-Shadeedi: a concise bilingual booklet that is less about the star’s sexuality and more about why we’re so obsessed with it in the first place.

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano: blew my cis-gendered feminist mind the fuck out. Forget what you think you know about gender and please just read this book.

The Keys’ Shadows by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Arabic): reads like poetry and the haunting imagery will probably stay with me for years. Haven’t read anything this beautifully written in Arabic in a long time.

Mythologies by Roland Barthes: read the second half first and the short essays second. Lays important groundwork for a better understanding of culture, power and representation.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (Arabic): every page packs a punch and it never wallows in self-pity. What this book lacks in writing style, it makes up for in hard-earned lessons.

Beloved by Toni Morrison: This is a masterpiece and a masterclass in good writing. Between the words, the characters and all the emotions they evoke, it’s a wonderful mindfuck.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a good example of how to choose characters and narratives that can bring home a vital history.

Queer by William S. Burroughs: self-indulgent, racist and misogynistic. I understand what kind of character he was trying to paint and the autobiographical appeal this book might have but it just reminded me how unbelievably stunted and toxic men can be, straight or gay.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde: a revelation in content and style. Nobody has perfected the art of balancing the intimate with the universal as well as Lorde does.

Uncut Funk: a contemplative dialogue between bell hooks and Stuart Hall: needless to say, the conversations between these two are fucking fascinating. Juxtapose it with superficial conversations on identity politics today and you’ll understand why this level of nuance is so necessary.

Brooklyn Heights by Miral al-Tahawy (Arabic): I was ready to love this book and although some aspects of the personal history were interesting, neither the storytelling or the writing styling were powerful enough to engage me.

The City Always Wins by Robert Hamilton: visceral and real, it’s an emotional read but one that will take you right back to the heart of the storm.

Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon: a much needed look at how racist colonial systems affect the psyche. Definitely male-centred but an essential read.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: a perfect study on love, shame and how these emotions manifest in our personal relationships. Baldwin’s writing is both soft and powerful, ie. easy to read and stays with you for a long time.

The End of the Affair by Grahame Greene: lyrically written without romanticising the writing experience and includes some excellent passages on love and religion.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon: infuriating in how accurate and relevant it still is, this book should be read by everyone in the Global South. But don’t forget to situate it within its correct political and historical context.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel: a new format for me but thoroughly enjoyed it! Slow, insightful and beautifully done.

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose: I didn’t know how much I needed to read this. It provides an excellent analysis on how motherhood is scapegoated on an individual level and often weaponised in the media for wider political gains.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge: a great primer for white audiences but offers little in-depth analysis or direction for the future of racial discourse.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi: this book is stuck between that particular rock and hard place, between self-orientalising and telling your truth. If the author had been a little more aware of her audience and positionality this could have been a great book.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: forced migrations and political upheavals through the families that lived them. Drags a little near the end but absolutely worth it for the women’s stories and all the lessons that come with them.

(First published on Gal-Dem.com, March 2019)

When I told a white non-Muslim friend that I used to be veiled, I was met with a blank stare. He only understood what I meant when I said, “I used to wear the hijab.” In my predominantly Muslim country, we always refer to it as “the veil” when we are speaking in English, so I wondered why then did an English man not understand this English word?

Last year I attended a panel on the politics of the Arabic language that helped me to answer this question. The speakers included a lecturer, a translator and a researcher who were all saying the same thing: that Arabic is being misused and those who do not speak it rarely understand the full political and historical implications of this. The examples given ranged from misleading translations of official treaties and political statements to the selective Arabic words and phrases taught to trainees in Western security apparatuses. To understand the complexities of the Arab world in an international context, speaking only English or Arabic meant that you were only receiving half the story.

Up until that point, I had understood that Western media outlets specifically chose to write very average run-of-the-mill words in Arabic to highlight the subject matter’s foreignness (eg. school/madrasa, veil/hijab etc.). This panel discussion gave me a deeper understanding of its political ramifications and confirmed my suspicion that the Arabic language was being intentionally weaponised to demonise Arabic speaking and Muslim countries.

At this point, it is essential to differentiate between Arabic speaking countries (which are almost always Muslim majority) and non-Arabic speaking Muslim countries. The reason is that while the word “madrasa” means any school in an Arabic speaking country, it is only used to refer to Islamic schools in non-Arabic speaking countries. In a post-9/11 world, this word came to infer alleged “breeding grounds” for future terrorists, at least in the English speaking use of the word. It is very confusing for an Arabic speaker to hear this word used in any context other than a casual “how was school today?”

A similar thing happened with the words “jihad”, “mujtahid” and “mujahideen”. All these words have the same root – “juhd” – meaning effort, and a student who is “mujtahid” is simply making a good effort. The word jihad itself does have a rich variety of meanings within Islamic teachings but for a word that has been around for thousands of years, there’s a particular reason people in the Western world have recently become very familiar with it. It wasn’t until the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 that there was an interest in the “mujahideen”. And in the West’s scramble to find a new enemy in the aftermath of the Cold War, the Muslim world and “jihad” became the targets of choice. Since then, this entire branch of the language has been tied to and constricted by these forced associations with religious extremism and acts of terrorism.

What compounds this problem is the language’s underrepresentation on a global scale. Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world but contributes only 0.6% of content on the Internet. Due to its complexity and diversity of dialects, it is mostly used by native speakers and only one in five people who try to learn it go on to take advanced classes. This makes it more vulnerable to media priming and framing – the idea that the media can set interpretative filters and associations by choosing what to focus on and how it is portrayed. This means when a reader sees an Arabic sounding word written in Italics on the page of a newspaper, years of exposure to negative content about the language/religion/culture will trigger them into either being afraid of this “other” or accepting that it is something dangerous that should be eradicated.

Putting this in the context of the recent surge of Islamophobia in the UK, where women are being disproportionately targeted, the word “hijab” is almost dangerous (depending of course on who is using it and to what end). Assuming these hate crimes are in response to terrorist attacks and the rise of the far right, it would make more sense for these bigots to target Muslim men, but ultimately Muslim women are more visible and seemingly easier to shout abuse at in the street. They have been labelled and associated with the “hijab” – the West’s easiest marker of what a Muslim looks like.

A veil is something universal, a bride can wear a veil on her wedding day, traditional Christian women will wear a veil to church, in some West African tribes it is the men who wear a veil. But a “hijab” is reserved for “oppressed Muslim women”. So if the English word for it exists, why not use it? The answer is to create a strong line of division, to create the impression that these ideas are foreign and cannot be translated into “civilised” English.

c7d0e1aa-c494-4918-8efb-d94e96de3a06Fou’ada is their conscience and the voice of reason, an entire village’s moral compass and the only one to stand up for what’s right. She is also the one soft spot of the strongman terrorising the village, Atrees. He wasn’t always like this, when they were kids they were equals – sensitive, caring, and not wanting to hurt a living soul. But the little boy was trained in the ways of his cruel grandfather who through years of abuse manages to infiltrate his grandson’s mind. Atrees grows up knowing that he is not like his grandfather by nature and promises Fou’ada to never kill. This all changes when one villager shoots the grandfather and makes Atrees promise to take revenge. In an exaggerated show of violence and as a metaphor for the death of his innocence and kindness, Atrees uses all of his men’s guns to repeatedly shoot the perpetrator.

Atrees becomes increasingly cruel, killing those who defy him and punishing others by burning down their farms or cutting the water supply. He has come to understand that to continue having this much power it must be done through fear, he has no desire to be loved or respected. This fear shapes the village, it infects how they interact with each other and how they view themselves, with most of them complacently accepting that this just how things are. The only exception is Fou’ada, who is not governed by fear. When she questions why no body is standing up to Atrees, the reply is always ‘why should I be the one to do it and risk death?’ Everyone is waiting for someone else to take the first step. The good of the individual is pitted against the good of the community and that is the true victory of fear and violence.

In the moving scene of rebellion where Fou’ada opens up the water supply while the rest of the village sulks over their misfortune, the people rejoice at her actions but are not moved to follow suit. There is an understanding that only she can do this because Atrees loves her. She has the one tool that exists outside the power structure. Her overwhelming compassion for others and intimate knowledge of Atrees makes her the go-to person when something has gone wrong. The men don’t turn to each other for help and support because they have nothing to offer each other whereas Fou’ada is always willing to help them out. Her expression of emotion is always to mourn for and with others but in the face of any personal struggles we get the steely glance of perseverance.

Atrees tries to intimidate Fou’ada and her family into a marriage with him and although she doesn’t agree her father and his witnesses lie and say she does; assuming that, like them, she will cower in front of him when the time comes. It is here that we see Fou’ada using the one structural and institutional piece of arsenal available to her – a Muslim marriage is only legitimate if the woman approves it. Despite this, her father marries her off anyway and it is almost through sheer luck that her brutal husband decides not to rape her. But for Atrees, to have Fou’ada by force would be counterintuitive because the reason he wants her in the first place is that she is balm to his wounded self, she is the sole source of light in this violent life he has created. He never talks of her personal attributes but keeps mentioning over and over again how she used to make him feel. She is his pain because she is a living reminder of the person he used to be and he wants to contort that into something that will give him relief instead. She is not a person with agency and her own make-up, she only exists in relation to him.

Fou’ada reminds him that his violence is a choice. He forced this marriage on her father but she would have willingly had him if he hadn’t committed all these unforgivable crimes. Yet he still tries to force her to become his salvation when she is clearly more interested in saving her village from him. The men’s reactions to her stance is particularly interesting. The young idealist claims that she has killed their manhood because she has done what none of them had the courage to do. Usually this would incite a reflexive hatred towards the woman for reminding them of their shortcomings as men but instead they have decided to use it as motivation to act, because if a woman can do it then they as men can do it too.

The most progressive gender stance then comes from the idealist’s father who tries to rally the men after Friday prayers. His argument is that even if they allowed Atrees to break the laws of man they must not allow him to break the rules of God. When another villager points out that they have a woman in their midst who sins by sleeping around, his response is that she has done this of her own free will whereas Fou’ada was taken from her family home against her wishes; and once they free themselves of this tyranny they can then sort out any internal issues that are bothering them. This begs the question then of whether or not they would have come to Fou’ada’s rescue if she had been raped or beaten? Or was it only in the breaking of the sanctity of marriage as laid down by Islam do they find their true motivation for taking action?

 

 

فيلم عرق البلحAnd what happens to the women when they leave? This is the central question posed by the 1999 Egyptian film ‘Arak El-Balah (3ara2 elbala7 – “Date Wine”). 

It starts with a mysterious voice visiting a poor village and asking all the men to come to a faraway land where they will gain many riches. The incentives appeal to the men’s masculinity: buying jewellery for a beautiful wife or being able to afford a daughter’s wedding. Although these reasons revolve around the family, the women express that they do not care about these things and would rather their fathers, husbands and brothers stay. It is clear the men are going to be exploited, the conditions for their work are: silence, blindness, forgetting.

The one man who resists is the one with no family, no wife or children to take care of. He is only concerned with the large palm tree. His self-assigned life purpose is climbing it and getting the white date wine that will cure his ailing grandfather. They end up being the two masculine figures left behind, the young man that must prove his manhood and the old man who can no longer speak or support himself. The old man is accompanied by Grandma Zein, the mysterious black woman who represents ancient wisdom, she is the overseer and protector of the village – sometimes through simple actions and stories, other times through cryptic metaphors and poetry.

The young man, Ahmed, is the only person in the village that knows how to read and becomes the women’s sole connection to their estranged partners and relatives. It’s one of the many ways he begins to gain their respect, culminating in a scene where they dress him like a “real” man and put him on a horse to call for musicians from a neighbouring village to celebrate a newborn baby. Like a child he accepts their grooming – it is the women who make the man. It is only when they stop treating him like a teenager that he stops trying to prove himself to them.

As time passes many women fall into either despair or insanity – sadness and madness – the central thread running through the women’s characters. Female sexuality for example is portrayed as a rising tension that sometimes leads to self-pity and other times to depravity. Only the married women have sexual desire, seemingly because they tried it and now cannot live without it. They are the ones who start proactively trying to find ways to fulfill their needs. One goes after Ahmed when drunk and gets beaten off like a dog by Grandma Zein, and another dances suggestively and ends up sleeping with one of the musicians from the neighbouring village. In a scene that provides an intense visual representation of shame; when the women find out, they surround her and silently pressure her into killing herself. On a group level it is a form of self-correction in order to preserve their social norms and on an individual level her pre-existing shame makes stepping into a fire and burning herself alive almost seem inevitable. Female desire is never treated as just being human, it is subhuman and abnormal, and is treated as such at every turn.

The men eventually return, tired, broken and seeking consolation in their women. The women seemingly so relieved at their return must quickly hide any mental distress that was caused by their departure but it manifests in other ways. The woman who had pursued Ahmed doesn’t want her husband anymore, she spends her days holding her son that she had almost killed in a fit of rage and smoking cigarettes (a decidedly masculine habit). The village is silent about the woman who killed herself and when one man asks why she did it, his wife tries to blame the sadness and he responds by telling her that they all have sadness in their hearts but nobody has killed themselves. Sadness is their accepted fate and it must come with an acceptances of all circumstances – acknowledging the possibility of desire, shame and mental imbalance is not an option.

The men also find out that Ahmed intends to marry the young and beautiful Salma but has impregnated her in the meantime. In a final showcase between two adjacent interpretations of masculinity, Salma’s father challenges Ahmed to climb the tall palm tree as a dowry for his daughter then cuts it down when he reaches the top, ultimately killing two of the village’s most valuable and productive entities.

Unlike palm trees that are resilient and don’t break in the wind, the system they had created and tried so hard to protect only works when everything is going smoothly with man, woman and children at home. In its attempt to spotlight the importance of family and the trivial pursuit of wealth, the film actually exposes how deeply flawed a traditionally patriarchal system is. The system however has succeeded in making the female characters internalise it and believe that they cannot survive without men, to the point where the women were able to successfully perpetuate its destructive tendencies. This is despite the fact that there are many modern, historical, urban and agricultural examples of successful female communities and female-led households. It is clear then that the overarching system cannot survive without this firm belief that if all the men disappeared, the women would crumble, like a built-in safety mechanism.

tearsAl-Ard (The Land, 1969) is arguably one of the most powerful depictions of land struggles and the plight of the farmer against oppressive landowners, the corrupt government and British rule in the history of Egyptian cinema. I was very young when I first saw this film and my lasting impression of it was its visual homage to Egypt’s stunning farmland and the intensity of feeling it aroused in the people who inhabited it. On second viewing I started noticing disturbing (though unsurprising) patterns in its portrayal of masculinity.

The whole village, young and old, is fixated on beautiful Wassifa (who also happens to be the most light-skinned woman in the village). She is strong-willed and courageous, supports her father and cunningly navigates many difficult situations but is still only ever lauded for her looks. Although she and the rest of the village women work as much as the men do, the women in the film don’t outwardly take pride in their work nor is it acknowledged by anyone around them. Instead they aspire to the life of leisure of the Cairo women that don’t have to get their hands dirty in the sun. The ideal scenario for women is that of a pampered wife who can stay at home and have children, the polar opposite of the masculine ideal; which is why both men and women in the film consistently use variations of “woman” as the worst possible insult to give a man.

Beyond the universal gender divide, in the towns and cities social hierarchy is also clearly divided across class lines and wealth as well as proximity to power or governmental ranking, two elements that are often inextricably linked. This also applies to the village but only in their relationship with the external forces acting upon them, amongst themselves the most important factors are family and land. This is made apparent when a murder occurs in the village and no one is held accountable because the victim is a poor, orphaned woman who has no land. It is immediately assumed that she must be of poor reputation and is consequently considered not worthy of a proper burial. The only suspect is the one other character in the film who has no land or family either. He is essentially scapegoated by the corrupt local leadership and only unofficially punished. The social circumstances of both these characters also prevented them from getting married, in essence their fate is pre-determined and there is no way for them to conform to social norms despite their desire to do so. He is socially emasculated as a result and she loses her “honourable” femininity.

The ideals of masculinity were represented through two central characters in this film. Mohamed Abu Swelam (played by Mahmoud El Meligui) is the older, principled, activist who believes in the power of small-scale collective action. He is the thinking man who is willing to lay down his life for what he believes in. His passion is viewed as a strength rather than blind emotion that could hinder his rational thinking. This is because he shows emotion towards the things that are socially acceptable for men in his village to show emotion towards – symbols of strength and masculinity, and his farm which is the lifeblood of his family. This is evident in the two most intense scenes of the film; the first shows his moustache being forcefully shaved off while in prison and the other shows his blood spraying the cotton as his body is dragged through the field, his fingers clinging to the dirt. Neither one of those images is subtle because they simply don’t need to be. The moustache is not a metaphor for his masculinity, it IS his masculinity. His jailers know that as a farmer who is willing to fight and receive violence for his cause – a truth he understands and accepts (see Fanon’s “Concerning Violence”) – the only way  to truly hurt him is not through physical torture but by emasculating him in both his eyes and the eyes of his peers.

The other masculine ideal is that of the strong young man, Abd El-Hadi (played by Ezzat El Alaili), he is impulsive and threatens his clearly more powerful oppressors with physical force at every opportunity. To ensure that he is not supplanted as the alpha male of their social group by the new male, Abu Swelam conducts several displays of physical strength to Abd El-Hadi (at the wedding and later in his home). This makes them equals and partners, and combined they represent a complete humanity in its various stages that draws in strength from the mind, body and soul; thus naturally rendering the women irrelevant. Except for the running joke of Abd El-Hadi asking Abu Swelam for his daughter, Wassifa’s, hand in marriage and Abu Swelam telling him this is not the right time (they have more important things to do).

In one of the film’s most seminal scenes, Abu Swelam gives a rousing speech to rally the villagers against the landowner and calls on the men to be men. Throughout the film, masculinity is portrayed as a form and expression of resistance. It is the symbol of strength in the face of oppression. The men use it as code for standing up for your rights and falsely equate it with characteristics that should have never been gendered. Which means that when the women also collectively organise themselves and face a terrible amount of violence, these acts of resistance end up being erased by default, simply because they are not men. It is a disheartening pattern we see throughout history where the role played by women in any revolution or anti-colonial struggle often goes unacknowledged. Ultimately we see masculinity being celebrated as being noble and heroic and women being treated as empty vessels for men’s designs. Maybe the characters did not have the right words to describe what needed to be done and so wrongly ascribed it to “being men”, but in doing so they perpetuated more of the violence and injustice that they hated so much in their own oppressors.

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith: included some lines that I’m still referencing a year later. I’m also never going to read anything by David Foster Wallace because of this book.

Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I have never seen someone contradict themselves so flawlessly. She has every right to be angry but some of the arguments have more holes than Emmental cheese.

The Art of Reading by Damon Young: self-indulgent yawn-fest. Gift it to an academic you don’t particularly like.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: more than a story, this is an experience. Requires emotional commitment but definitely worth the pain.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: just when you think you’ve seen it all, here comes a book that will kick you in the teeth and leave you smiling through the blood.

Inside the Gender Jihad by Amina Wadud: a much needed academic angle on feminism in Islam. An original and well-argued perspective that can at times be repetitive but still worth the read.

Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy: though I still have mixed feelings about its “shock and awe” approach, this book was inspiring in some very unexpected ways. But it definitely felt like I was not the intended audience.

Key Concepts in Gender Studies by Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan: great cheat sheet for anyone wanting to dip their toe into academic feminism.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: this is the book they would give as an example of good horror writing in a creative writing seminar.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: author cornered himself with this book’s format but managed to create decent rising tension nonetheless.

Paradise Beneath Her Feet by Isobel Coleman: if I ignore the misleading cover and subtitle, I can easily tell you this was one of the most important books I read as an Arab woman and feminist.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: layered, textured, and insightful. Good twists too.

Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki: sometimes funny, sometimes depressing – very orientalist. Highlights some underreported but important points and research.

A Book for Her by Bridget Christie: meh.

Big Ideas in Social Science: overview of latest social science research in an easy format, enough to push you out of your discipline-based snobbery. Fascinating read.

The Power by Naomi Alderman: great idea but writing lacked oomph. Still enjoyed reading the shit out of it.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad: hits close to home but disjointed in places.

Women & Power by Mary Beard: men are trash, historically.

Cultural Relativism and International Politics by Derek Robbins: (see The Art of Reading).

Crisis and Class War in Egypt by Sean McMahon: marxist and repetitive but provides a unique perspective on the revolution.

Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks: I said it before and I’ll say it again – this should be mandatory reading everywhere.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler: had to quit halfway, not suitable for non-academics (or maybe it’s just me).

Swing Time by Zadie Smith: a long sequence of missed opportunities and almost there’s.

Drown by Junot Diaz: stories that read like poetry from an undeniably authentic voice.

The Girls by Emma Cline: go read the Charles Manson case files instead.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville: like a summer blockbuster I enjoyed it while I was reading it but then forgot about it immediately after.

Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde: no book has ever spoken to me so intimately and so immediately as this one.

Call Me Be Your Name by Andre Aciman: it made me feel things.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: left me frustrated at times but it paints a rich portrait with multiple faces and locations.

Again this unfortunately excludes the Arabic books but one day my lazy ass will get round to it.