Book Review: This Arab Is Queer: An Anthology By LGBTQ+ Arab Writers

Existing within cultural intersections, the concept of representation often feels like sitting in front of an old television. You have to twist the antenna to the left, say a brief prayer, and give the shell a whack before you get the fuzz out of the picture – only then can you squint your way into seeing something close to familiar. It’s not often you sit down to be met with something that feels as if it has been made specifically for eyes like yours to receive. 

Edited by Elias Jahshan and published by Saqi Books, ‘This Arab is Queer’ is an anthology of essays by writers from throughout the Arabian Peninsula (spanning Egypt, the Gulf, and to those of us wading through the waters of the borderless diaspora). They invite the reader into stories about their desires, identity and experiences as queer Arab people today; each calling on us to engage with the narratives we brought into this sitting about them and their lives. This engagement is rewarded with a series of pieces that are both bold and moving. 

One such example is Amina’s (pseudonym) poignant An August, A September and My Mother. The piece reads like an elegy to both Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian queer activist who tragically took her own life in 2020, and for those of us who still hold her memory close. Elsewhere, Rajah Farah’s ‘The Bad Son’, offers a glimpse into the toxicity bred between a son and his ailing father, and how in this context queerness exists in his life as both tension and release. Whereas Zeyn Joukhadar explores his relationship to opera as a trans man navigating some of the more orientalist texts of the genre. He then deftly leads up to a call for embracing transgression that will have you wanting to melt your voice into his chorus of song. 

In the interest of honesty, my first instinct was to hesitate before even turning the first page. A very real, and persistent, issue tends to emerge in texts like these. They often fall into the trappings of decentring the purported focus of the writing, or find themselves too preoccupied with mediating with the western gaze of its intended audience (and that is in the scarce instances we can set aside the often purely Western -or more accurately white– gaze of its authors, editors, publishers and funders).

That this anthology seems to have consciously sought to meet those possible critiques from its inception is a rare feature I can only hope becomes more of a standard.  

This however is not a qualifier, as I am not a person inclined to award points because representational boxes are checked. I note this as a fact of much of the work in this field because this text seeks to exists in relation to that boxing when intending to speak beyond it. It is important for us to acknowledge this context when reflecting on what This Arab is Queer offers the reader. 

Indeed, the critiques that could be levied might focus on the foundational nature of some of the writing, at times veering too close to repeating inspirational refrains. Though you could also argue that critique stems from me being an academic whose general viewpoint can often tend towards the cynical. Similarly, you could reason that different sequencing might have resulted in a more impactful overall reading experience – though that might simply be an issue of preference.

Ultimately, however, reading This Arab is Queer felt significant, to me. Unflinching, pointed and vulnerable, it is a text that demands all its readers look at the spaces between our queer community and face the stories of those relegated to the margins. Perhaps more importantly, it speaks directly to those who share something with its subjects- asking them to not limit hope by imagining it for each other, but to remember to also imagine it for ourselves. 

  • Dr. Khaliden Nas. 

This Arab is Queer is edited by Elias Jahshan and was made available in paperback and digitally on June 16th 2022. It features the contributions of writers: 

Khalid Abdel-Hadi, Amna Ali, Madian Aljazeera, Mona Eltahawy, Raja Farah, Saleem Haddad, Zeyn Joukhadar, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Saeed Kayani, Dima Mikhayel Matta, Hasan Namir, Danny Ramadan, Tania Safi, Omar Sakr, Anbara Salam, Hamed Sino and Ahmed Umar.

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