Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Queering the otherness in the Middle East"

Some people who have known me for some time will immediately understand the subtle sarcasm in the title of this post, and hence the quotation marks in which they were enclosed. In February of 2005 I attended, along with my friends Jeff and Michael Friener, and my boyfriend at the time Keith, American University's annual conference on Lavender Language and Linguistics. Together we invented our ironic little sub-language drawing from the titles of some of the talks we had heard, in which adjectives like 'queer' and 'other' took the morphological forms and syntactic roles of verbs, gerunds, nouns and other unexpected parts of speech. I think that in addition to our astonishment at the perceived linguistic novelty of these usages, we were also somewhat confused as to the true meanings of some of what we had heard at the conference. Since I have no clear idea of my ideological goals, if any, in reporting what I am about to report, I thought this would be a good way to begin. Perhaps this linguistic vagueness will help disentangle the vagueness of the situations I will be describing below.

Between May 27 and May 31 of this year, I had the following exchange with Danielle Briscoe, a former student of mine at UT Austin, who was furthering her study of Arabic in Cairo at the time.

Danielle wrote to me with the following query:

ok, what is the best way for me to express "gay" in arabic? anything simple? stick with "a man who loves men" or "woman who loves women"? my teacher was giving us some words, but i wasn't sure if what i was repeating was anything i'd ever say the equivalent of in english, especially when she said something about "half-man, half-woman" and that hetero men were "natural men."


Since the answer was not obvious even to me, a gay linguist specializing in Arabic, I responded at some length as follows:

Well, first of all, it was nice of your teacher to raise the issue. Or did you just ask her about it?

Secondly, how did you know that I of all people would have the following page bookmarked:

As you'll see, the table at the top of the page provides what the author calls "positive expressions," though what they really are is non-negative ones. At the bottom there's a narrative listing some of the more pejorative phrases that are in common use in the Arab World.

The basic term for 'gay' (or literally, homosexual) is مثلي الجنس, which can be shortened to just مثلي. Add a taa' marbuuTa, and it means 'lesbian.'

If you want something really really simple, what the cab driver who tried to hook up with me in
Cairo a couple of months ago said was simply اولاد بيحبوا اولاد. A simplistic way of looking at things, or an idiosyncratic euphemism? Time will tell.

Help! indeed...

To which Danielle responded:

Thanks! This is great.

Basically, the conversation came up when my classmate Rob was talking about his visit to the Florida Keys, which involved going to his (gay) friend's birthday party at a drag club, and getting called on stage and taking his shirt off. So we were trying to explain that drag shows are not about having sex, that Rob does not feel like his gay friend is trying to date him, that he felt it was humorous and not scary that he got called on stage, that the US gay rights movement is considered to have started in 1969 (her comment: "Such a long time...!"), and that some reasons she might be able to understand for gays to have the right to marry in the US relate to inheritance, hospital visitation rights, and health insurance (beyond that, she was having a hard time). Naturally, I can't say we convinced her of anything, but she found it "very interesting" and she was glad to have the chance to ask us questions, since we "know many gay people." She also shared that her friend's boss is gay, and she likes going there because he is a man she doesn't have to feel uncomfortable with in that molestation/harassment way. alhamdulillah for small blessings.

Some of my more cynical readers will surely comment along the lines of, "See? That's what you get from these backward Arab countries! In Israel, gays live a life of milk & honey (oops, no sexual pun was intended)."

Now I'm not claiming that gays in Israel are in many (if not most/all) aspects better off today than they are in Egypt or Jordan, the two Arab countries I have visited in the past few years. But there were a few things I read and saw today that gave me some hope. In essence they show that some thirty years ago, lesbians and gays in Israel were as oppressed and shunned by society as they are in some of the "darker" countries today.

A dear dear man named Nitzan Aviv, whose résumé as an activist puts many other veteran activists to shame, both on the Palestinian-Israeli peace movement front and the queer rights front, to mention but two domains of political activism, recently wrote a guest column in Israel's foremost LGBTQ web portal If you read Hebrew, I recommend that you take a break from reading my blog and go here for a few minutes:

Nitzan tells us of the first pride parade held in Israel in 1979 and of a group who put together what was probably the first Israeli queer theater performance. If you take a few more moments to read the comments at the bottom of the page, you'll see how some dude who hides behind the handle "the historian" accuses Nitzan and the left – in particular communists and Palestinians – of all sorts of things that Nitzan, in his online responses, demonstrates are completely false.

One online commentator (only identified as "the Tel Avivian") refers us to some footage from an Israeli TV news story from 1979 about the group mentioned in Nitzan's article: Nitzan himself, by the way, appears (in a mischievous Jewfro and open-buttoned shirt) in the second segment, which is part Hebrew, part English).

Finally, and back to present-day politics, I recommend that you watch the video in, where we see excerpts of the June 2009 parasession if the Israeli Knesset commemorating Pride Month. The session was convened by MK Nitzan Horowitz (don't worry; not all Israeli gay men are named Nitzan), after a few years of hiatus, before which former MK Yael Dayan (featured in the video speaking following Horowitz) used to convene it annually in June, despite outcries from some of the Knesset's extreme religious members (both Orthodox Jewish and Muslim). The discussion is in Hebrew, but I think even a non-Hebrew speaker can appreciate the 4-odd minutes of parliamentary discussion on LGBT rights.

I am still unsure what my goal is here. One goal, I suppose, is exposing an audience (albeit, I admit, a minuscule one) to some facts and opinions others, not I, have expressed in the short history of LGBTQ visibility in this region. I also think that it shows how unstable things are. Not to say that homophobia is an issue of the past in Israel, but we have come a long way in a not-so-long period of time. And while it needn't be the case elsewhere, it also needn't be the opposite. At least one of my readers will surely accuse me of unjustly expecting non-Western societies in the region to adopt Western definitions of fairness and equality. I don't. Though I do believe some such values ought to be universal.

Another thing that bugs me about the Israeli case is that far too many in this country's LGBT (I hesitate to include Q here; you'll see why) community are so proud of things like "Israeli gays are allowed to serve in the military," that they forget that in fact Israeli gays are required to serve in the military (if they're Jewish and so on and so forth), where they are expected to (a) forfeit 2-3 years of their lives (and sometimes sacrifice their lives altogether), often in order to (b) engage in horrendous crimes against humanity.

I'll end here and allow you to ponder the complexity of all this.

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