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Q&A with Elias Jahshan: To Be Queer and Arab

As the world marks Pride Month, TIMEP interviewed Palestinian-Lebanese-Australian journalist, writer, and editor Elias Jahshan who published This Arab Is Queer, an anthology of 18 stories by queer Arab writers around the world.

As the world marks Pride Month, TIMEP interviewed Palestinian-Lebanese-Australian journalist, writer, and editor Elias Jahshan who published This Arab Is Queer, an anthology of 18 stories by queer Arab writers around the world.

TIMEP: How would you describe some of the most pressing and significant issues that the LGBTQ+ community faces in the Arab world? And does it make sense to talk about an Arab LGBTQ+ community as a whole, or should the conversation or issues be more localized?

EJ: Before I begin to respond to this, I think it’s important to highlight my privilege: I was born and raised in the West and have the freedom of movement that comes with an Australian passport, and the security of being able to live my life without the fear of state-sanction retribution. Not to mention the backing of my immediate family—this is not something I take for granted. My growing up in the West of course doesn’t make me any less Arab as my parents made sure our culture, family history, and language were at the forefront of our daily lives. And despite living in the West, my coming out journey was also still met with the challenges that came with reconciling with the deeply entrenched cultural stigma around homosexuality, and the racism within white-dominated queer spaces. Regardless, highlighting my positionality is important, and I trust that people would realize I don’t speak for the queer Arab community as a whole. I am just one of many, many voices, and none should be regarded as “definitive” as our lived experiences are so varied, and so nuanced. A Q&A like this would never be able to do it any justice. People could even argue that This Arab Is Queer may not do it justice—and that’s perfectly fine! I don’t want people to think it’s a definitive collection either, but rather the first of many that’s yet to come.

So back to the question. In all honesty, I don’t know if I have the right answer to this. From the top of my head, it makes more sense for the conversion to be more localized. For example, the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon is vastly different to what the same community faces in Saudi Arabia. Even on a city-by-city basis, it’s different. The LGBTQ+ community in Beirut, for example, has different issues to those who reside in the mountain villages of Lebanon, let alone LGBTQ+ Arab folk who grew up in the working-class suburbs of Sydney, or Dearborn. It’s important to bear in mind the social, geographical, and political contexts of each community.

One such example is how queer Palestinians are often gaslit, using a litany of cliches such as “Israel is a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ Middle East.” While that may be true if one were to simply compare the legal statutes of each country in the region, it’s still reductive, and it ignores so many other issues. The hard truth is that queer Palestinians are still persecuted for being Palestinian first and foremost. Israeli authorities do not care about their sexuality—they are still the target of their apartheid laws and military occupation, whether they be in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, or within the historic 1948 borders. For many queer Palestinians, liberation from Israeli occupation is at the forefront of their struggle—perhaps more so than combatting the homophobia that exists within the community. On the other hand, the queer community in Egypt are quite possibly more focused on staying safe, and keeping their digital footprint (such as on Grindr or Twitter) to a minimum so as not to attract the attention of Sisi’s ongoing crackdown, which he uses to distract from bigger, more pressing issues facing Egypt, such as poverty and a spiraling economy.

I don’t mean to be so reductive—these issues are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. There’s so much to tackle. But I think this is where it links to the other part of the question: perhaps the most constructive way, and perhaps only way, to talk about the issues facing the community as a whole is to look at it from a decolonial perspective. We need to hold Western powers accountable for the interventions they carried out through (homophobic) colonial laws that still linger, the rise of right-wing nationalism or theocracies that came in response to, or with the support of, Western imperialism in this post-colonial era (often in the form of military campaigns) – and how both of these have played a huge role in creating the political environment around the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) region today. At the same time, we also need to look to our own community and challenge the entrenched, toxic patriarchal elements that enforces the cultural stigma and unfettered homophobia and transphobia around the LGBTQ+ community, and challenge state and community leaders (who are products of this toxic patriarchy) who twist and thwart the values of our cultures, of our religious texts, to further their agendas or to entrench their power.

But as always, this is just a start. So many queer groups and activists on the ground are already doing the hard work to create positive change in their countries. They know what works best—and they also know they don’t need white saviors from the West coming in to hijack the discourse. It’s important to understand that the queer liberation movements across SWANA is different to the queer liberation movement in the West. Just because it worked for Australia, the UK, or the US, does not mean the same tactics can work in SWANA countries. It’s not that simple, unfortunately. And to think it is would be naïve—and also a form of imperialism.

TIMEP: How did you come up with the idea of your anthology book? Was it important to gather such a diverse number of stories?

EJ: Publishing a book has always been a dream of mine. In 2019 and in the lead-up to the first lockdown in the UK during spring 2020, I went through a phase where I read a slew of incredible anthologies. Namely It’s Not About the Burqa, The Good Immigrant (both the UK & US editions), Our Women on the Ground, The Things I Would Tell You, and of course Arab, Australian, Other—the latter of which I was privileged to have contributed a chapter entitled ‘Coming Out Palestinian.’ Reading these anthologies, and reading their introductions and reviews contextualizing the books and the processes that went into curating them got me thinking: “I wonder if I could curate my own anthology?”

That light bulb moment of sorts made me remember all the times I witnessed how the global community of queer Arabs was represented—or misrepresented, rather—in the media. For example, at the time I was the editor of Star Observer, Australia’s longest-running queer media outlet, I remember using wires copy for articles around ISIS’s reign of terror in Syria and Iraq, and the infamous and horrific accounts of them throwing gay men off rooftops, among other things. I remember reports of Egypt’s regime storming a bathhouse. The issue isn’t that the media is reporting on these stories—they needed to be reported, of course—it’s that the focus was almost always on being sensationalist and it was common for the articles to have subliminal, underlying current of Islamophobia running through them. There was barely ever any understanding as to why state-sanctioned homophobia existed, and barely any mention of the work of activists on the ground. I just felt like our community was not being given the justice to be portrayed with nuance and dignity. It felt like we were being spoken over, rather than being given a platform to speak for ourselves.

Also, as editor of Star Observer, it struck me how much erasure there was of queer Arabs in queer media, and in queer communities as a whole, at least in Australia and many other Western countries. Things are a lot better now for sure, but I am still met with uncomfortable silences from people when I tell them I am gay and Arab, or better yet, when I am gay and Palestinian. The idea that we can be both—and love being both—is something that doesn’t fit the narrative of many whom are Western-centric in their outlook of the world. And don’t get me started on the cultural stigma and rampant homophobia that exists in my Arab community. In both contexts, it’s as if there’s an implied expectation that we only be gay and that’s it, or only be Palestinian and that’s it. I hated how I was compartmentalizing my intersectional identity based on the context I was in. Thankfully, I don’t really do this anymore.

When I reflected on my experiences of queer Arab erasure in the media, and personal anecdotal moments where people could not reconcile me being gay and Arab at the same time, it quickly led to the premise of This Arab is Queer. I knew that whatever anthology I set out to do, it had to be something that was never done before, something that was going to provoke discussion and celebrate the diversity and nuances of our community. So, upon the advice of my husband who told me to just do it, especially since our social life went on a long pause in that first lockdown, I sat down and started writing the proposal.

After I had completed the first draft of the proposal, I had to update it at least twice due to two big incidents in 2020 that suddenly made the idea for the book extremely pertinent. The first was when the EU, Canadian, and UK embassies in Baghdad decided to raise the rainbow flags for the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT)—while I’m sure their intentions were good, to show solidarity with the queer Iraqi community—from what I understood, they did not engage with the community at all before this happened. It exuded white savior complex, and the repercussions it had across Iraq was not great. The second incident was the tragic passing of Sarah Hegazy—this was an incident that was felt over the world, and shook me and many queer Arabs I know to the core. I don’t need to elaborate much on this, most people are familiar with who Sarah was and what she stood for.

I also started listing names of people who could potentially contribute. I initially had a small list of all the familiar names of queer Arab writers, activists, and creatives I was already a fan of. But as I got sucked into social media over the lockdown, I started to notice names I had forgotten to add, and started following more people I hadn’t heard of before—whom I also added to the list. The list grew to more than 40 names, and I felt confident they represented the length and breadth of the diverse Arab communities and countries. I was keen to ensure this representation came through from the very start, as I wanted to avoid the easy trap of creating a book that reflected the huge cultural capital that Egyptians and Lebanese have.

I also think it’s super important to have a variety of voices and stories. Mostly because there is no one right way, nor any wrong way, to be queer and Arab. Our experiences are varied and unique, and I wanted the book to reflect that. Our experiences may not always be positive, nor may they even be negative—but at the end of the day, there’s always hope.

TIMEP: You wrote in your introduction to This Arab Is Queer that authors reclaimed the narrative in telling their stories with their own terms and words. Why was that critical? What do you hope to accomplish with the book?

EJ: This is super critical because I wanted to show readers that we have our own agencies, that we can tell our stories on our own terms. I wanted to challenge the concept of how our stories only seem to matter if it’s one that peddles to the “trauma porn” narrative, or the orientalist idea that we need rescuing, or the “model migrant” approach in being “grateful” for living in the West. I also wanted to challenge the (unspoken) tendency of Western media outlets in how they only seem to seek our voices when it’s in response to something that is in the headlines. I’m not saying they shouldn’t do this—our stories do need to be told, and I support any writer who is given such a platform. My issue is with those who gatekeep our stories. Why is it that our stories only matter in those circumstances? Why is it that space is rarely ever created for us to just be, to express our lived experiences how we want in our writing? Why can’t we talk about any other aspect of our queer Arab experience—whether our queer identity comes into it directly or indirectly?

I hope the book’s readers gain a better understanding of the nuances that come with being queer and Arab, to gain further understanding that we are not a monolith, and that we don’t need to explain ourselves or to prove our humanity to anyone—whether it be Western society or even members of our own Arab community. We’re here, this Arab is queer, and if we start much-needed conversations—then my job is done. It might not always be easy, but change is never easy.

TIMEP: What role have Arab LGBTQ+ writers, artists, journalists, and activists played in bringing to light the issues of the community?

EJ: Arab writers, artists, and activists have played a huge, huge role and facilitating change, and ensuring progressive perspectives are heard in an increasingly conservative context; and I don’t just mean religion—one can still be “secular” and conservative, ergo a bigot. It’s through their work that we have been able to become more visible, to have our voices and experiences documented and heard. It’s a long process, but these wins should always be celebrated given the circumstances we are up against.

We also have a growing number of straight allies coming forward to speak for our community, to stand in solidarity with us through their platforms in the media or artistry. Often it’s subtle, for safety reasons, but we see them and love them for it.

In terms of Arab journalists though? It’s hard to tell. It depends on what outlet they work for, and to be frank, the number of progressive outlets across the Arab world is small compared to the bigger, more popular ones that pander to the homophobia of their audience, or are simply outright controlled and/or censored by the state. I am sure there many, many progressive journalists out there—but due to the censorship they face, or the homophobia and patriarchal influences they have still yet to unlearn, they have not been able to use their platforms to highlight our stories with the empathy and dignity our community deserves.

TIMEP: What can be done to improve the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in the Arab world? What do you think should be prioritized?

EJ: I think first and foremost, we need to support the groups and activists on the ground who are doing the work in bringing about positive change for their communities. It doesn’t necessarily have to be groups that are lobbying the government—they can be groups that simply offer a safe space for queer members, or for groups that offer sexual health clinics that are free of the judgement and shaming of state-run health clinics. It might also mean helping lawyers or legal experts who may not necessarily identify as queer, but the funds mean they can offer pro bono support for any queer community member who is facing backlash from the state in any shape or form.

I think we also need to keep in mind that encouraging visibility, encouraging more people to “come out” is not a good idea when it comes to queer Arabs. “Coming out” is arguably a Western concept, and one that does not necessarily work for queer Arabs. For that reason, ensuring safety should be another priority. And just because they may not meet the standards of the West in terms of how “out” that may be, does not mean their queer experience should be invalidated. They should still be celebrated, and they deserve to be seen and heard. There are ways to do this without putting one’s safety on the line.

Finally, we need to center LGBTQ+ Arab voices as much as possible. Speaking over us is not going to go down well, and speaking for us needs to be done with caution and self-awareness. But I cannot stress enough that if one were to talk or write about us, they have to include us and/or center our voices in the discussion. Saying “I don’t know of any queer Arabs who can speak” is never an excuse. Especially now, after publishing This Arab Is Queer—one has at least 18 names to refer to, and potentially more, should more books like this prop up in the future. Through this direct engagement, this way of giving us the platform to provide a nuanced perspective, we can help bring about change. It’s not the only way, of course. But it’s one of many.


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