by Gabriel Semerene

LGBTQ rights activists in Lebanon and Palestine have taken upon themselves the reappropriation of language by developing a glossary of rainbow coloured terms and issues in Arabic.

Above-ground LGBTQ rights activism is relatively new in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Early on in the 2000s, a few LGBTQ activist groups were established. Examples include Helem (an acronym for “Lebanese Protection for Homosexuals” and also the word for “dream” in Arabic) and Meem (a support group for LGBTQ women that is no longer active) in Lebanon; and alQaws (“The Rainbow”) and Aswat (“Voices,” a group of LGBTQ women) in Palestine.

Although largely concentrated in Beirut and major Palestinian cities, the actions of these groups echo beyond the borders of their nation states, influencing nascent LGBTQ activism as well as sexuality-related discourse in general, throughout Arabic-speaking societies.

For more than a decade, LGBTQ rights activists in Lebanon and Palestine have taken upon themselves the reappropriation of language. This task revealed itself to be a very complex one as activists, writers and artists embarked on an attempt to navigate the imbrications between language and sexuality.

Mithliyi, mithlak?

How do you say “homosexual” in Arabic? A passage from a book by Lebanese author Rashid el-Daif called The German Returns to His Senses (‘Awdat al-Almani ila Rushdihi) exemplifies the current shift in the vocabulary, since the term mithliyi/mithliyah came to be used as an acceptable appellation for people who are sexually attracted to individuals of the same gender. In the book, while attempting to inform an Egyptian colleague that another character was homosexual, the protagonist uses the French abbreviation “homo” (not necessarily a slur in this language) and then adds the Arabic mithliyi to make sure his interlocutor understands him. It so happens that mithliyi sounds quite like mithli, which means “like me.” Confused, the Egyptian character asks “a homosexual, like you?” to the great embarrassment of the protagonist.

This anecdote exemplifies the novelty of this term. Many people, including intellectuals, may not yet be familiar with this new “trend,” preferring more traditional, sometimes pejorative, Arabic words or borrowing from European languages. Mithliyah itself is a calque on the word “homosexual” – the Greek homo (“equal” or “same”) is equivalent to the Arabic mithl.

The first attempts to establish a glossary of terms to address LGBTQ issues in Arabic can be traced back to the end of the 1990s. In 2003, the blog Bint el Nas, managed by a group of queer Arab-American women called the Mujadarra Grrls, published a bilingual glossary of “positive expressions in Arabic” that included mithliyah (transcribed as “misliya”) for homosexuality, mozdawij/ah for bisexual and moghayir/ah for transgender.

More recently, the Palestinian LGBTQ group alQaws released Qamouqaws, a wordplay on the words qamous (dictionary) and qaws, an Arabic-only lexicon defining phrases related to sexuality. Compared to Bint el Nas’ glossary, Qamouqaws appears to reflect more the actual use of these phrases now that they have greater recognition. The English-language denomination “queer,” for instance, is simply transcribed as kwir, which has become as a popular term, whereas in the glossary published on Bint el Nas it was translated as ahrar al-jins (roughly “free in sexual orientation”).

The initiative was first motivated by the urgent need to be able to talk about non-normative sexuality in neutral terms. Today, male homosexual relations have semi-officially been labelled liwat, in reference to sodomy, and female ones sihaqah, linked to tribadism. Furthermore, as Khaled El-Rouayheb argues in Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, the concept of liwat cannot be equated with homosexuality, for it only describes a sexual practice. It therefore cannot adequately encapsulate identity and affects.

Such translation efforts are not only about coining “politically correct” terms. Language is a reflection of social categories and classifications, and in this case the aim is to point to current interconnections between sexuality and identity.

The emergence of modern sexual identities and LGBTQ rights activism in Arab societies has been the subject of intense debate. This activism was critiqued and problematised famously by the Columbia-based academic Joseph Massad, for example, who argued that naturalising the link between same-sex relations and identity has the potential to harm individuals who engage in same-sex sexual practices by pressuring them to conform to categories they don’t necessarily fit into, articulate their sexual practice as an identity and make public an aspect of their being they might hitherto have relegated to the private sphere.

Many LGBTQ activists responded by arguing that cultivating such identities is necessary in order to confront hegemonic heteronormativity. They claimed that their identities and activism were not a simple import from the West, but an endogenous reaction to a regime of compulsory heterosexuality and the criminalisation of alternative forms of desire, as argued by Ghassan Makarem, one of the founders of Helem:

“People do not choose to identify with a criminal identity. Declaring a sexual preference that does not conform to imposed norms is an act of defiance against existing structures of oppression. We criminalise ourselves and reject the crime at the same time. This brings about a dual nature of such expression. One is used by the state and the ruling class to criminalise a section of society. The other is that of resistance and rebellion against criminalisation and oppression.”

Curiously, the term mithliyah has imposed itself quite rapidly, even among those who wish to denounce what they consider to be “unnatural behaviour”. It is increasingly used by mainstream media and the government. For instance, in reaction to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in France in 2013, Marwan Charbel, then Lebanon’s minister of interior, called same-sex marriage zawwaj al-mithliyin (“marriage of homosexuals”), while affirming that Lebanon was against the luwat" (“sodomites”).

Terms such as mutahawwil (transgender), izdiwajiyi (intersex) or even ghayiriyi (heterosexual) have yet to receive the same attention. In one of the rare publications focusing on trans people in Arabic, Mudhakkirat Randa al-Trans, the word trans is preferred to mutahawwil.

The role of foreign languages

Western languages, overwhelmingly English, play an important role in the movement. The Arabic words created by LGBTQ movements themselves are mainly based on existing Western ones. In the Lebanese context, the appropriation and Arabisation of foreign words is quite common. This is especially true when it comes to the subject of sexuality. Johnny Tohme, formerly of Marsa, a sexual health centre in Beirut, explained that many of his patients do not feel comfortable expressing themselves in Arabic when detailing intimate acts. According to him, people will often shift to English or French when talking about sex.

“People think that everything related to sexual liberation and sexuality is something from the outside, that it’s not from our culture. As if they appropriated the language itself by saying it in English or in French, but it sounds heavier in Arabic.”

To Palestinians, the language issue is connected to political resistance. Languages other than Arabic – especially Hebrew and English – are also part of daily life. Palestinians living inside the state of Israel are often more proficient in written Hebrew than in literary Arabic, which led the queer women’s activist group Aswat to organise “language reclaiming” workshops. Ghaida Moussa explained:

“The opportunity to write and speak about sexuality in Arabic has had an empowering effect on many members of the Palestinian queer community. For example, Diana recalls that when she began writing for Aswat, 80 percent of her writing was in Hebrew, and that now she feels able to submit writings to journals such as Bekhsoos, an important media outlet for queer women in the Arab world.”

Besides adopting and translating terms from the Western LGBTQ vocabulary, such as mithliyah, Palestinian LGBTQ activists also seek to come up with more “organic” ways of speaking about gender and sexuality in Arabic. This is why, besides Qamouqaws, alQaws has initiated projects such as Ghanni ‘an al-Ta‘rif  (roughly translated as “sing about identity”). By encouraging LGBTQ Palestinians to make music about their experiences, the organisation is also creating a space for non academic discourses on sexuality and gender identity.

For the Palestinian movements, language is a contentious topic when it comes to dealing with Israeli allies. In a Facebook status, Palestinian activist Haneen Maikey expressed her frustration with the attitude of some Israelis towards a party organised by alQaws. According to her, Israelis who wished to attend the party “[kept] making faces because [alQaws activists didn’t] want to speak Hebrew and [kept] replying to their questions in Arabic or English.”

Maikey also regretted that important debates concerning homophobia in Palestine only took place on English-language media:

“It is unfortunate that this ‘debate’ is still taking place via foreign, English-speaking media […] The homophobia storm taking place in Palestine in the last week should be addressed carefully inside Palestine and in Arabic, and I would dare and say, that by now it should be moved outside the uncontrolled social media space. Too bad.”

Despite the fact that some LGBTQ activists in Lebanon prefer using Arabic, it would be unusual to deplore the use of English when debating issues related to LGBTQ people in Lebanon.

Although lacking an activist movement per se, Jordan is the birthplace of My.Kali, an openly LGBTQ online magazine. Entering its eighth year, My.Kali’s content is almost exclusively in English. According to founder Khalid Abdel-Hadi, the decision to publish the magazine in English was partly influenced by the fact that this language is accessible to a more “progressive” demographic. My.Kali did, however, launch their first bilingual issue in September 2015.

The use of language as a form of protection from what is considered a more conservative part of the population is a strategy adopted, consciously or not, by many LGBTQ media in the region. There appears to be, nonetheless, a realisation that by rendering such material inaccessible to those who might not be comfortable reading in English, they are not only excluding less privileged social classes, but also avoiding the popularisation of the issues with which they are concerned. Aware of this, publications such as the magazine Barra, published by Lebanon’s Helem, have worked towards adding more Arabic content over the years.

Reclaiming the insults

If coming up with a new vocabulary and managing the influence of foreign languages are undoubtedly complex and politically charged projects, reclaiming insults has proven itself to be the most transgressive – and contentious – part of this linguistic endeavour.

A powerful act of transgression took place in Beirut’s Dawwar Shams theatre in May 2012. It was not initiated by an activist group, but rather by a sole, svelte, androgynous performer, with curly long hair and a gold and red baladi dance costume. As this body moved to an aggressive beat, its movements were interrupted every now and then by the sound of a voice uttering insults, death threats and swear words.

This body was Alexandre Paulikevitch’s, a Lebanese baladi dancer, and this act of transgression was his performance “Tajwal.” In order to fund his premiere, Paulikevitch had to sell his car. He moved around Beirut on foot, not passing unnoticed:

“Because of my body and my hair, I would draw a lot of attention. People would insult me out of their cars, or they would hit on me – which often turned into insults as well once their advances were rebuffed. I grew more and more sensitive to the violence the city exerted on me.”

Paulikevitch started to write down everything people would yell at him. He later asked singer Yasmine Hamdan to make the notes into a song.

By dancing over those manifestations of hatred, Paulikevitch engaged in a power struggle and reaffirmed the agency of his own body. This overturning of an oppressive power through dance is not unlike the process of taking back language undertaken by LGBTQ movements. Much like Paulikevitch, some LGBTQ activists decided to confront stigma by reclaiming the insults that reflect it.

Reappropriating slurs is nothing new when it comes to historically oppressed minorities. The word “queer” itself is used in the English language to describe someone who doesn’t fit in, especially in the way they perform their sexuality and gender. Spread around the globe, beyond the Anglosphere, the term lost its original symbolic charge. Many LGBTQ activists in the Arab East will identify themselves using the English term queer. There is, however, a trend to reclaim existing slurs in the Arabic language, notably the word shadh.

Shadh, which means “deviant,” was the centre of the 2010 campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia in Lebanon, titled “Ana shaz” (“I am a deviant,” shaz being an alternative transcription of shadh). Scholar Sara Mourad pointed out that reclaiming the word was far from consensual; the stigma carried by the slur is still far too great for some people to feel comfortable using it:

“While ‘queer’ has been reclaimed in the United States, shadh still carries the stigma of deviance in a Lebanese and broader Arab cultural context. As one Lebanese queer activist pointed out in an interview, people in the community were divided around terminology, with many being uncomfortable with the use of shadh.

In addition to that, reclaiming derogatory words goes beyond the intent of creating a positive identity. This identity is rather rendered entirely political and relational, with individuals claiming certain identities within the social context in which they find themselves. It is also a way to deny the binary framework that is implicit in the notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality, as well as in their translations in Arabic. The wish to reclaim shadh stems from a growing unease in using both English and Arabic binary terms to define non-normative sexual or gender identities.

The relation between insults and social identity in Arabic-speaking societies can be traced back to classical literature. In the collective work Islamicate Sexualities, historian Frédéric Lagrange points out that the numerous sexual insults employed to describe those who engaged in same-sex intercourse shaped the social identity of such individuals. In a similar vein, Sahar Amer suggests that the denominations for lesbians found in Arabic medieval literature, which are also marked with negative connotations, could also be a source of social identity.

Much like these classical insults, contemporary ones tend to crudely allude to the body and sexual acts. They are offensive, among other reasons, because they reduce queer subjects to their non-normative desires and bodies. Reclaiming these insults is, thus, also a way of reclaiming the body. Since the symbolic violence suffered by LGBTQ people results in alienation from their bodies, reappropriating the body is an important step in LGBTQ activism, a step in which language plays a major role.

Gabriel Semerene is a doctoral candidate in Arabic literature at the Sorbonne, working on contemporary sexual identities and queer narratives in the Mashreq. Based in Paris, he is also often seen in the streets of cities such as Beirut, Brasilia and New York.