In her essay ‘Queering the Mother Tongue’, doctoral student Sarah Mourad describes how she shifted the focus of her research from queer Arab sexuality to the language used to express that sexuality:
The object of study…should have been my unease with using the Arabic mithli (homosexual) or shadh (deviant) to talk about nonnormative desires, identities and gender roles in Lebanon. Why is there a theoretical and practical feeling of unease that haunts the topic? If the Arabic terms were translations from the English, is there a guilt associated with the act of translation itself? And is this because translation is the empirical evidence of the cultural inauthenticity associated with these terms? Does the unease stem from a fear that the foreignness of these signifiers betrays the foreignness of what is signified?
Underlying Mourad’s frantic questions is the fact that concepts relating to sexuality, normative or otherwise, are absent from contemporary Arabic language discussions of the topic in media and other public fora. In another passage of her essay, Mourad notes that “the [English] word sex is more common in everyday conversation.”
Needless to say, it is not that Arabic, whether in its standard or dialect form, lacks the terminology for these matters. In fact, activists and organizations in Lebanon have been particularly assiduous in innovating terms where none existed, or replacing derogatory terms with more neutral words. Much of this vocabulary has, in turn, been adopted and deployed by the greater Arabic-speaking LGBT community. The issue, rather, is that in the Arab world, the people as well as their governments have approached the Arabic language as a sacred site that must remain free from “profanity,” which encompasses everything from gay pornography to the word ‘penis’.
In a Guardian article on the 2008 London Book Fair, which spotlighted Arabic-language literature, Arab writers identify censorship, both political and social, as one of the enduring challenges facing literature in the Arab world. While censorship “is one of the oldest difficulties that has confronted freedom of expression in the Arab world,” as Amjad Nasser, a Jordanian poet, notes, “[s]ociety has [now] taken to supporting the state in muzzling creative voices.” Available evidence bears this out. A 2017 survey of 6,035 Arabs conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar, for example, found that approximately seventy percent believed governments should “do more to censor violent and romantic content in films and TV shows.”
Despite this popular support for censorship, Arabic-language writers have not shied away from tackling taboo subjects. In 2015, VICE interviewed the Lebanese writer Charles Chahwan, who has been dubbed “the Arab world’s answer to Charles Bukowski”. Though Chahwan could have chosen to write in another language, he selected Arabic as his medium of communication, refusing to concede control over the language to its more zealous oppressors. In a linguistic community that has long since replaced the explicit with the euphemistic, this is no small feat.
Chahwan is far from the only Arabic-language writer engaging with sexually explicit topics. His compatriot Joumana Haddad, who was interviewed for Muftah, is famous for her acerbic attacks on the patriarchal sensibilities of Lebanese society; Yemeni writer Ali Al-Muqri has written about everything from sex and alcohol to Islam, with grave consequences for himself and his family; Moroccan Mohamed Choukri and Iraqi Hassan Blasim, writing a generation apart, have both devoted themselves to mercilessly and luridly portraying poverty in their homelands, tackling topics like murder, prostitution, and drug abuse. Literary scholar Nele Lenze, meanwhile, has written extensively about literature in the Gulf, where authors have had some success bypassing censors by publishing their work online.
These and other Arabic-language writers are working to reverse the effects of censorship and reinsert or recreate sexual vocabulary that has been expunged by Arab governments and societies. While their work is unlikely to be found in the heavily patrolled bookshops of the Arab world, blogs and book fairs further afield will no doubt rise to the challenge of disseminating their literary output—by hook or by crook.