queering the middle east
Khalid Abdel-Hadi, founder of the Middle East's leading LGBT magazine My.Kali, is carving a new space for queer culture in the Arabic world.
Khalid Abdel-Hadi photographed by Abdullah Dajani.
Under a barrage of carpet bombs, clouds of nerve gas, scourge of fundamentalism and the blundering aerial assaults of Western powers, Syria is unravelling, threatening to destabilise the entire region in the process. Yet among the flames are untold stories of hope, resistance and resilience. In neighbouring Jordan, an oasis of calm in the region, queer culture is tentatively finding its feet.
While homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, it was decriminalised for consenting persons over the age of 16 in Jordan in 1951. (For comparison, the UK only decriminalised homosexual acts in 1982, and even then, only for those over 21. Only in 2001 did the UK legalise gay sex for those over 16, fifty years after Jordan.) Amman, the country's capital, is relatively accepting of LGB people, or at least, middle-class, wealthy and educated queers who pass. Yet trans people, working class queers, those outside the capital, and anyone presenting as queer in public still face severe repression. In the context of Jordan's uneven political climate, systemic queerphobia in the rest of the Middle East, and international queer movements that centre whiteness, demonise Islam, and treat Middle Eastern queers as either victims or primitives, liberating queer communities is a minefield, one that regularly claims lives.
Khalid Abdel-Hadi, founder of the Middle East's leading LGBT magazine My.Kali, has carved a new space for queer culture in the Arabic world. Founded in 2008, the magazine was published exclusively in English. "We didn't want to speak the language of the public," he explains, in part for fear of reprisal, the likes of which recently saw Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent Bangladeshi LGBT blogger, beheaded by radical Islamist militants. Last year heralded a brave new move in My.Kali's proud history with the publication of its first edition in Arabic. "We thought it was time. Regardless of whether it's smart or completely safe, it is needed."
Founding the magazine was a troubled process. The first issue was saved on a CD, and was set to launch at a party organised by a friend. Khalid put himself on the cover, "an act of ownership," as he calls it, after years of having his LGBT magazines and books confiscated by his family. The launch was to be among friends, but a conservative Islamic paper got wind of the story. The subsequent article was headlined, "Revolution of the Perverts."
"During that time, you would hear news about people being hanged publicly in Iran, catfished and then arrested in Egypt, kidnapped in Syria, shot dead in the street in Iraq, and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia," he remembers, "I was only 18 at the time." Thankfully, he avoided most of the violent backlash, and through the encrypted coordination of anonymous or pseudonymous contributors, he has managed to protect his safety and that of his contributors across the Middle East, and made the magazine a landmark for queer Arabs.
The state rarely interferes: "The government has problems with people who talk politics and religion: that's what scares them, and we don't try to tamper with that. We stick to arts, society, culture," he says, pausing before adding, "we don't try to be politically heavy." Politics, however, is inescapable when using trans cover stars, candidly discussing women's sexuality, and lending a voice to silenced LGBT creatives in a region eager to deny queer existence or associate it with western decadence, oppression and imperialism.
While not an explicitly political platform, Khalid advocates for change across the region. Decriminalisation across the Middle East and North Africa, greater education of the straight majority, and legal recognition of trans existence are keystones of the movement. "For now, the LGB community is fairly stable, so we are trying to lend trans people our voices, to move them forward," he explains. It seems at least one segment of the Arab movement is avoiding the mistakes of the West, which privileged gay and lesbian struggles and hoped trans rights would naturally follow.
The West and its failings is a topic that we return to again and again over the course of our conversation. Many Jordanians grew up on Queer as Folk, Glee and Will and Grace, but they offered few recognisable models for Arab queers. "Cultural imperialism is strongly felt in Jordan, and we're trying to reclaim our Arab identities: we are trying to negotiate wanting to be associated with the west [and the benefits of LGBT visibility and acceptance], but not wanting to endorse all of the west." After all, women's issues and LGBT rights have become central justifications for the West's bloody interventions in the region, fuelling the perception of the Arab world as prejudiced and primitive, crying out for the aid of white saviours.
"There's colonialism in queer theory," Khalid adds, "and we need to think about whether [LGBT identity] is just another idea from the West imposed on the Arab community, and consider if we have ever had or are able to have forms of identity that are uniquely Arab. We're looking back through history and trying to develop something in the present." The history of the Arab world provides fertile ground for LGBT researchers: much classical Arabic poetry addresses same-sex love (though never same-sex fucking), and when Muhammad al-Saffar, a Moroccan scholar, visited Paris in the 1840s, he expresses surprise that "flirtation, romance, and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men."
Forging an identity free of Western dominance that avoids casting queer Arabs as a monolithic bloc poses a struggle. Khalid expresses particular frustration at the Western media's obsession with casting Arab queers as victims. For all the stories of rejection, alienation and oppression are others of acceptance and triumph, but the complexity of queer Arab life is lost in Western representation. As but one example, while nearby Iran imposes the death penalty for sodomy, it is home to the second highest number of gender reassignment surgeries in the world. The unevenness of LGBT rights throughout the region gains minimal attention.
The reconciliation of national identity and sexuality is inherently bound to an even more complex and controversial synthesis: blending sexuality and religion. "I'm a believer. I'm a Kurdish-Jordanian-Palestinian-Arab queer man," he states, smiling. "Many people ask me how I am gay and Muslim at the same time. I just am. Personal beliefs have nothing to do with your sexual identity."
In the last ten years, progress has been hard won, but significant gains have been made: "We could never have imagined there would be several [LGBT] publications across the region, or that Tunisians would go on TV and talk about sexuality, or that Moroccans would talk about trans life on a national show."
Unpredictability, however, is one of the few consistent truths on the Middle East in the 21st century, and for all the progress of queer communities in Jordan, the tragedy of neighbouring Syria forces its way into the room on more than one occasion: "None of us saw the Syrian revolution coming. It has been a tragedy, and it forces you to rethink your life and the future. You can be sitting in a café, quietly drinking coffee, and read about gay men thrown from the roof of a building by ISIS. I could be thrown off a roof one day. Is it worth it? Is it worth me doing this?"
Khalid pauses. I pause. The silence is weighty. Seconds later, his unfailing optimism kicks in, and he reaffirms his faith in his queer allies and their trajectory toward recognition and rights. Even the revolutions tearing apart Jordan's neighbours hide possibility under the slaughter: "The progress we have seen in the past decade is linked to the revolutions, not directly of course, but there are similarities."
"People have started to get more vocal," he explains, "more vocal about everything: their rights, their dreams, their way of life, and their futures." In that, in the collective voice of Khalid, the magazine, and his LGBT Arab peers, lies the path to a new era in a region on the brink of unravelling.
Text Edward Siddons
Images courtesy of My.Kali