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Queer Muslims in Diasporic Fiction

By:
Alberto Fernandez-Carbajal
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Queer Muslims in Diasporic Fiction

Introduction

The relatively recent interest in the topic of queer Muslim diasporas in literature must be attributed to two main historical factors. Firstly, the independence of Asian, African, and Near and Middle Eastern countries from direct or indirect European colonial rule during the course of the twentieth century inaugurated a postcolonial period of Islamic revivalism that has lasted to this day. This has seen the rise of modernist models of Islam (i.e., Wahhābī, Salafī, Maududist) as forms of anti-western political resistance. With literalist impetus, these versions of Islam have come to condemn homosexuality categorically, in spite of several centuries’ worth of debate about non-heterosexual acts (Kugle, 2010; Habib, 2010). As these Islamic models have become globalized, their influence has caused Islam and Muslims to be perceived by westerners as universally homophobic.

Secondly, infamously revitalized by Samuel T. Huntington, the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric has had a central role in the recent interest in queer Muslims. This discourse pits Islamic and western “civilizations” against each other and has gathered momentum since 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror.” The combination of Islamic revivalism and “clash of civilizations” discourses have rendered Muslim homosexualities a touchstone of contemporary identity politics. For many Muslims, whether radical or traditional, homosexuality is a morally unjustifiable and extraneous symptom of the West’s moral decadence. In turn, for some westerners, Islamic homophobia is a sign of Islam’s incompatibility with western liberalism.

Recent deployments of the concept of “diaspora” in postcolonial studies evince that the term has come to describe any form of individual or collective migration from one country to another (Keown, Murphy, and Procter, 2009). From a queer perspective, Gayatri Gopinath’s seminal book Impossible Desires (2005) constructs queer diasporic subjects as challenging two sets of ideologies: that of the nations from which their ethnic groups originate, and that of the countries where they live, also suggesting how contemporary diasporas constantly wrestle with colonial ideologies and aesthetics inherited from empire.

Writers of Muslim heritage in the West are keenly aware of the stereotypes Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin identify in western depictions of Muslims. Queer Muslim sociologist Momin Rahman (2014) argues that queer Muslims ought to be approached intersectionally, paying due attention to triangulating forms of prejudice. According to Rahman, the triangulation of homophobia and Islamophobia is central to queer Muslims in the West, torn as they are between a critique of both Islamic and western homophobia and western Islamophobia. This is a personal conundrum the characters in literature must also contend with.

Queer Muslims suffer from exclusion from both queer and Muslim communities. Thinkers such as Jasbir K. Puar (2007) have drawn attention to the clout in the West of normative LGBT discourses which scapegoat “Other” citizens, such as Muslims, whose relationship with issues of sexuality fail to come up to the West’s moral expectations. She also argues that western LGBT citizens’ recent accession to civil rights has led to “homonationalism,” a form of patriotism belittling other nations and cultures in the light of their acceptance—or lack thereof—of homosexuality, which further exacerbates Islamophobia.

Terminologies

How we talk and approach texts about sexually dissident Muslims is a sensitive topic. Edward Said’s disciple, Joseph Massad, argues in his book Desiring Arabs that the neatly compartmentalized sexual categories used in the West (i.e., gay, lesbian) to define homosexuals are not applicable to the Arab world, where sexuality is not understood in terms of an essential sexual orientation, but as socially performed sexual roles (i.e., dominant/submissive). Any attempt at describing Arabs with any western terminologies is, according to Massad, tantamount to cultural imperialism. On the other side, Samar Habib suggests dismissing those subjects with near-exclusive homosexual attraction is a form of discursive erasure (Habib, 2010).

Despite the global influence of western LGBTIQ discourses, especially since the inception of the internet, there are still many Muslims who may never choose to refer to themselves as “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or “trans.” “Queer” is a term that is also western, but its emphasis, according to Annamarie Jagose (1996), is on anti-normative positions. This allows us to analyze anti-normative Muslims’ social strategies of resistance without fixing their identities. Mobilizing “queer” as a dissident umbrella term containing both social-constructionist roles and essential identities may be the only way of respecting the cultural complexities of queer Muslims.

General Themes

Queer diasporic Muslim fiction exists at the crossroads between East and West, and so its authors are aware of their various readerships: minority and majority ethnic; religious and secular; indigenous and diasporic. Their work reveals tensions with dominant narrative conventions. For instance, the allegedly westernized notion of “coming out” is a recurring—and also recurrently subverted—technique in novels dealing with queer Muslims. Shamim Sarif and Sara Farizan, who agree with western sexual exceptionalism, embrace it, whereas Hanif Kureishi, Randa Jarrar, Abdellah Taïa, and Rabih Alameddine avoid it, either because their characters see themselves as more fluidly queer, or as an attempt to resist western models of sexual liberation, or because of its dangers. In the case of Saleem Haddad’s work, “coming out” is perceived as too risky, and queers find strength, instead, in each other.

Islam plays a variable role in the depictions of queer Muslims, since Muslim identities exceed religion, regularly entering the realm of ethnicity and politics. Thus, whereas Kureishi and Sarif reveal secularizing sensibilities, Taïa, in An Arab Melancholia, abandons mainstream literalist Islam for Sufism, seeing in the mystical branch of Islam the promise of a more inclusive configuration of Islamic spiritualism. The polyphonic and probing nature of literature is best equipped to furnish us with the understanding of what it means to live out identities that our societies sometimes deem mutually exclusive. Literature dealing with queer Muslims in the diaspora contributes to an ongoing process of social acceptance, their negotiation of their various identities offering resilient and incontrovertible proof of their common humanity.

Annotated Chronology

The 1990s

One of the first modern authors to deal with queer diasporic Muslims is Hanif Kureishi (b. 1954), a British author and screenwriter of mixed Pakistani and white British heritage. His debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, first published in 1990, marked a watershed moment, informed by his earlier film script for Stephen Frears’ film My Beautiful Laundrette, which explored racism and queerness in Thatcherite London. The Buddha of Suburbia depicts the fortunes of Karim Amir, a youth, like Kureishi himself, of mixed ethnic heritage. Kureishi’s dealings with racism, national identity, and queerness have been explored most prominently by Bart Moore-Gilbert (2001) and Ruvani Ranasinha (2002).

In America, Rabih Alameddine’s experimental novel KOOLAIDS, originally published in 1998, intertwines religious texts and contemporaneous historical events, such as the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1992) and the American AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. A writer of Druze heritage, Alameddine writes novels that purposefully blend religions and cultures. As Fernández Carbajal (2017) argues, his writing critiques the arbitrariness of the man-made barriers built between cultures and religions, irreverently challenging the patriarchal and heterosexist biases of religious interpretation. This is undertaken also in his fiction on diasporic themes published in the new millennium: I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, which explores Druze femininity “at home” and in the diaspora; The Hakawati, a national and diasporic saga about a family of Lebanese storytellers and the stories they tell; and The Angel of History, the story of a day in the life of a Yemeni man living with AIDS. Alameddine’s highly experimental fiction has received critical attention from scholars such as Steven Salaita (2006, 2011), Waïl Hassan (2011), and Syrine Hout (2012).

North African queer diasporic fiction of the 1990s onward is best represented by Francophone Moroccan writer Rachid O. (b. 1970), who, like his contemporary Abdellah Taïa (b. 1973), writes about his experiences as a gay man in Morocco and his migration to France. Rachid O.’s novels have all been published in French from the mid-1990s onward. They deal in a realist and confessional style with his life’s experiences as a homosexual man in Morocco and France.

Although the writing of queer Muslims in the diaspora such as Kureishi and Sarif is highly autobiographically infused, there is a trend in Francophone Moroccan diasporic writing, called “autofiction,” which is explicitly autobiographical. Written in the shadow of queer French autobiographical writer Jean Genet (1910–1986), this subgenre implies, according to Arnaud Genon (2013), the homonymity of the authors and the protagonists of these texts, whose experiences, although clearly drawn from the authors’ lives, are written and marketed as fiction.

The 2000s

Writing since the turn of the twenty-first century, Abdellah Taïa is the first Moroccan writer to “come out” publicly without the protective shield of pseudonymity. His autofictional novels are stylistically versatile and offer a wide frame of cultural reference both for western and Moroccan and Arab cultures. His first short story collections, published in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Mon Maroc (My Morocco) and Le rouge du tarbouche (The Red of the Fez), selected and anthologized in Another Morocco, already reveal a homoerotic sensibility. Following Taïa’s “outing” in 2005 by the Moroccan magazine Tel Quel, Taïa’s novels Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia candidly explore Taïa’s homosexuality, his experience of Arab and Islamic homophobia in Morocco, his migration to France, and his unequal relationships with European and Arab men. Taïa’s work has been translated into English in America, which evinces western interest in non-normative Muslim identities. Taïa’s subsequent non-autofictional novels, Le jour du roi (The King’s Day), Un pays pour mourir (A Country to Die in), Infidels, and Celui qui est digne d’être aimé (He who is Worthy of Being Loved) explore topics such as homosexuality, class disenfranchisement, Muslim trans identities, and Islamic terrorism, often challenging western commonplaces about Muslims. For an in-depth analysis of Taïa’s fiction, see Jean Zaganiaris (2013).

The depiction of female homosexuality in British Muslim communities is best represented by Shamim Sarif (b. 1969), a British writer of South African and South Asian Muslim diasporic heritage, whose semiautobiographical novel I Can’t Think Straight, set in contemporary Britain and published in 2008, and her debut novel, The World Unseen, set in apartheid South Africa and originally published in 2001, explore the relationships between British Muslim and Christian Arab women, and between South Asian Muslim women in South Africa, respectively. These texts explore the familial hurdles women must overcome in the face of Arab and Islamic patriarchal values. Although Fernández Carbajal (2017) argues that the author’s lack of reference to any Arab homoerotic cultural archive and her construction of the Middle East as a place of ideological stasis reveal her homonormativity, Sarif’s fiction also attempts to demystify the notion of the homophobic and patriarchal Muslim father, hence attempting to curb Islamophobia.

Across the Atlantic in America, a prominent writer dealing with Muslim femininities, sexualities, and coming of age is the Palestinian American Randa Jarrar (b. 1978). Jarrar’s acclaimed first novel, A Map of Home, published in 2008, explores the sexual awakening of Nidali, a girl of half-Palestinian heritage, her fraught sense of belonging as an Arab American, her queerness, and her femininity. Jarrar’s writing is sexually candid and unapologetic. It has been followed in 2016 by a collection of short stories, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali. As a religiously lapsed Muslim, Jarrar draws spiritual comfort from Buddhism and post-humanist discourses amalgamating queer fictional hybrid species in the face of societal bodily normativity.

The 2010s

In America queer diasporic Muslim writers of the second decade of the twenty-first century are former Muslim convert Sulayman X, Lebanese writer and scholar Alexandra Chreiteh, and Bangla-American Tanwi Nandini Islam (b. 1982). The novels of Sulayman X, Bilal’s Bread and Adventures of a Bird-Shit Foreigner, explore the homoerotic awakening, the social alienation, and the religious conundrums of Muslims, with reference also to Southeast Asia, where the author himself has migrated.

Chreiteh’s Always Coca-Cola, initially published in Arabic in her native Lebanon, translates into English the story of university student Abeer Ward, whose dealings with her queerness in Beirut constitutes a critique of Arab-Islamic heteropatriarchy and of globalization and capitalism. She has also written Ali and His Russian Mother, a novel set during Lebanon’s July War (2006) and featuring a displaced lesbian protagonist of mixed Russian and Lebanese heritage.

Islam’s Bright Lines, in turn, depicts the coming of age of Ella, a Bangladeshi orphan living in New York City who enters into a homosexual relationship with an Islamic cleric’s estranged daughter, with all its subsequent controversy.

The growing visibility of queer Muslims in western literature has extended to young adult fiction. The novels of Sara Farizan, an American writer of Iranian descent, explore the burgeoning of female homosexual desire and the process of coming out to one’s Muslim family. If You Could Be Mine and Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel develop well-established narrative arcs of self-discovery and visibility, while Here to Stay examines issues of American Muslim masculinity and the enforcement of stereotypes about Islamic terrorism.

More recently, Saleem Haddad (b. 1983), a British writer of mixed German, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Lebanese heritage, has come to prominence with Guapa, a novel set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Its protagonist, Rasa, has been found in bed with his male lover by his grandmother. The novel charts the young man’s coming to terms, in the Middle East but also in America, with his sexuality and the shame he has internalized due to Islamic teachings about homosexuality.

Critical Perspectives

Due to their recent rise to prominence, many of the aforementioned writers have not yet received significant, if any, scholarly attention. More established authors, such as Kureishi (Moore-Gilbert, 2001; Ranasinha, 2002), Rachid O. (Orlando, 2009), Taïa (Beaumont Center, 2012; Orlando, 2009; Zaganiaris, 2013), Alameddine (Salaita, 2011; Hassan, 2011; Hout, 2012) and Jarrar (Albakry and Siler, 2012; El Gendy, 2016; Salaita, 2011) have been the object of several studies in English and other languages. The literary criticism dealing with their work is frequently centered around themes of national and cultural identity, language, migration, gender, and sexuality, with issues of faith proper being often secondary to their concerns, or subservient to supposedly larger issues of cultural identity. Hence, the study of queer Muslim diasporas in fiction tends to belong in projects built around national and transnational cultures: Moroccan, Lebanese, and Arab literatures and their diasporas, as well as in studies of American, British, Francophone, queer, postcolonial, and feminist literatures.

Recent literary criticism of Sarif and Alameddine (Fernández Carbajal, 2017a, 2017b) has started charting the ideological and cultural trajectories of each author’s configuration of homosexuality and homophobia, as well as their particular engagements with Islam. The work of, and about, queer diasporic Muslims is highly scattered and has not yet altogether reached the mainstream. Whereas writers such as Kureishi, Jarrar, Rachid O., Taïa, Alameddine, Haddad, and Islam are published by major or at least well-respected publishers, Sarif, Farizan, and Sulayman X are either self-published or published by small presses. While the American publishing industry has recently cottoned on to the public interest in queer Muslims (see, for instance, the several American translations of Taïa’s work by Semiotext(e) and Seven Stories), there is a lingering sense that books about queer Muslims in the diaspora may still be too niche or too minority ethnic. These writers tell their stories within a market that remains predominantly white and heterosexual, so issues of race, ethnicity, and sexuality are in themselves factors to be taken into account when considering what and whose narratives are reaching western readerships.

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