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Portraits of Transfemininity in Asyut: Supernatural Ways Beyond the Binary in Mid-Century Upper Egypt
In 1958 the popular Egyptian magazine Akher Sa’a ran a story about four people, designated “rijala yertadun fasateen y’ayeshoon hayat al nisa”, men “donning dresses and living as women”, in the Upper Egyptian town of Asyut. To their readers, the editors of Akher Sa’a presented biographical sketches of how these people came to be the way they were alongside staged photographs and followed by expert opinions from an Egyptian psychologist, the local minister of education, and a medical doctor. This article departs from that one. By intentionally annotating my full translation of the Arabic text, I disrupt the logic of these trans-human interest stories. Each of these portraits attempts to rationalize instances of gender/sexual alterity by offering a biographical account and (pseudo)scientific evidence that contextualizes the people and pictures on the page. Egyptians living beyond the gender binary were made legible to a broader reading public in the 1950s through the narrativization of their early childhood experiences, or in one instance, through a story about a deal between the subject and a spirit, djinn. My analysis denaturalizes the publication’s ethnographic impulse to narrate the causes of these cases and disrupts the contemporary and mid-twentieth century readers’ distinct but related instincts to locate transness in various indigenous contexts. In translating from Arabic I reflect on the linguistic (im)possibilities of holding trans and nonbinary people in language. While I engage the terminology of ‘non-binary’ to theorize the conditioning of trans-embodiment in Upper Egypt, I also hesitate to describe these subjects as trans or non-binary. Instead, I rely on somewhat verbose but more accurate descriptors such as, ‘living with intention beyond and in tension with the binary’, while remaining mindful of the particularity of these subjects’ trans-femininity. Moving from the emphasis on the causes of these cases to their conditioning is a critical gesture that shifts scrutiny away from the specifics of these individuals’ lives to the ways in which their articulation was inflected by the place of the magazine, Akher Sa’a, and Asyut, Upper Egypt. Ultimately, I labor to situate these four subjects beyond the interlocking binaries of man/woman, cis/trans, and East/West. In so doing, I collapse these structures and offer alternative portraits of trans-femininity in Asyut.
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