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Queer/Trans Critique of Middle East Studies

RoundTable IV-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
What does it mean to develop a queer and trans critique of Middle East Studies? How do/can queer and trans methodologies and epistemologies shape the research conducted in and about the Middle East? What kind of stories, experiences, affects and analysis does queer and trans critique render possible, visible, sensible, visceral and/or emergent? Presenters on this roundtable aim to engage with these questions by centering paths, possibilities and potentials that queer and trans critique generates in the production and circulation of critical knowledge in and about the Middle East. This roundtable is born out of vital analytical and political needs for the circulation of queer and trans as multiple modes of analysis rather than their signification as identity categories or specific ways of being in the world. Queer and trans critique does not solely focus on the concepts of sex, gender, sexuality and desire, but also offers a wider scope of analysis about hierarchies of life, existence, social organization and ways of knowing. In line with recent discussions in critical queer and trans studies, speakers on this panel aim to push the interdisciplinary area of Middle East Studies further to think more critically about queerness and transness as places of possibility, as well as formative sites for studying state formation and organization; urban geography and transformation; race and racialization; diaspora and migration; surveillance and securitization; political economy and labor; violence and war; and sect and religion. Hence, while laying stress on the need for a more informed Middle East studies by queer and trans epistemologies, methodologies and politics, this roundtable also pays attention to the significance of intersectional and transnational approaches that shape queer and trans critique in the region and beyond. Each speaker on this roundtable has at least a decade-long research experience in their geographic area of expertise. They will share their critical insights about Kurdish, Syrian, Lebanese, Iranian and Turkish studies from queer and trans perspectives.
  • Dr. Asli Zengin -- Organizer, Chair
  • Dr. Sophie Chamas -- Presenter
  • Sima Shakhsari -- Presenter
  • Elif Sari -- Presenter
  • Dr. Razan Ghazzawi -- Presenter
  • Elif Sari
    My talk fails to detach queer and trans critique from queer and trans bodies/lives. It follows the premise that queer and trans critique is rooted in the experiences of people who are forced to navigate the world differently – and often with more difficulty – than normative, privileged bodies. Oftentimes, this refers to a quest for survival and requires constantly navigating inclusion and exclusion, invisibility and visibility, developing ambivalent attachments, doing contradictory things, and occupying liminal positions. In my talk, I explore how this complexity, or messiness, is reflected in individual and collective experiences of refugee waiting. By centering ethnographic accounts from my research with queer and trans refugees waiting in Turkey for resettlement to Global North, I discuss how refugees appear to be ambiguous figures: radical, resistant, and transgressive bodies who also attach themselves to normative politics, harmful discourses, and exclusionary practices. Through an intersectional analysis, I aim to show how these contradictions and ambiguities are produced by – and reveal - the workings of the transnational border, aid, labor, and deportation regimes. I suggest these restrictive and exploitative regimes prompt refugees to constantly make ethical and practical choices about whom to love, trust, and help; make calculated decisions between justice, morality, and material interests; and engage in co-existing dynamics of collectivity and individualism, solidarity and competition. A queer and trans critique can/do help us understand these complexities without searching for stabilizing binaries of good refugee/bad refugee, resistance/victimhood, or transgressive/normative. What is at stake in this analysis is twofold: 1) recognizing refugees’ and other racialized and gendered bodies’ “right to complex subjecthood” (Gordon 1997: 4), which acknowledges the messy, contradictory, and multidimensional construction of subjectivities and lifeworlds, and 2) using queer and trans critique to explore the possibilities and limits of developing a radical political praxis when people are caught in a spiral of oppression, precarity, and uncertainty. Gordon, Avery F. 1997. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Sima Shakhsari
    Queer seems to sustain an uncomfortable, if not adversarial relationship to the state, particularly in the Middle Eastern contexts, where states are often categorized as autocratic, failed, or theocratic. Queer’s desire for anti-normativity, outlaw-ness, subversion, and fluidity often stands against the state’s normalizing and/or disciplinary techniques, its laws, its identity-based categorizations for rights distribution (and by extension, management of the population), and its heteronormative systems of kinship. In my talk, by thinking beyond sexual identities and rights, and without assuming queer to be inherently and necessarily antinormative, I focus on the Iranian state and take up questions of queer geopolitics, transnational refugee regimes, and the politics of rights/rightlessness, to suggest a queer anthropological approach that explores the state as a contradictory and transnational assemblage of multi-layered institutions, people, and practices that unevenly map the geopolitics of sex and sexuality. I suggest “queer states” as an analytic to challenge how state and queer have been imagined in dominant analyses of queer studies and Middle Eastern Studies. Rather than excavating queerness in heteronormative structures of the state through “queering,” we might consider states that are punished or demonized for their “dirty” human rights records and perversions as queer states (or queered states). “Failed states,” a common phrase in political discourse that normalizes liberal democracies and global capitalism, refers to states that are unable to provide public services (thanks to neoliberal policies, wars, and sanctions), lose authority over their citizens (thanks to U.S. military interventions), and fail to participate in the “international community” (by violating human rights that are defined by the arbitrators of rights and its violations). But, if we consider failure to be a “queer art,” I suggest that we could consider “failed states” to be queer/ed states— those that refuse to abide to the norms of liberal secular statehood or are excluded from the “family of nations” for being outlaws, “terrorists,” and threats to the “international community.” Without glorifying “failed states” through their queerness (where queer stands for liberation/progress), this approach goes beyond the binaries of democracy/autocracy, queer/straight, secular/religious, progressive/homo or transphobic. Rather, it takes seriously the government of populations not necessarily through the direct imposition of law, but through calculation techniques and programs that may very well be implemented by non-state agents participate in the art of governmentality to regulate the conduct of the individuals and normalize the population.
  • Dr. Razan Ghazzawi
    Drawing on ethnographic research with eight self-identified LGBTQ Syrian and Palestinian artists, students, activists, and asylum seekers in Lebanon, my intervention centers queer and trans refusal to join the Syrian military in the context of counter-revolution as a queer geography of protest in Syria. It looks at the intersection of queerness, feminist geography, militarization, and the ‘war on terror’ narrative in understanding the sexual politics of the Syrian war. Drawing on indigenous feminist geographies (Hammami 2014, Shalhoub-Kevorkia 2008) and cultural queer feminist geographers (Gopinath 2018), the intervention reflects an oral history narrative of LGBTQ Syrian and Palestinian asylum seekers in Lebanon who fled the war as fugitive runaways from the Syria Arab Military in the context of state repression against 2011 popular protests. In doing so, it explores queer geographies of anti-militarization protests as a site for queer and trans protest and resistance against authoritarian military regimes following the Arab Spring. Finally, it critiques the colonial ‘war on terror’ narrative that advocates war logic as an emancipatory path for Syria, as claimed by queer colonial organizations and feminists in the west and diaspora more broadly.
  • Dr. Sophie Chamas
    This presentation explores the ways in which queer Arabs reinterpret, archive, and circulate classical and contemporary Arabic film, poetry, music and literature to cultivate a genealogy of queer Arabness. It discusses how, through these practices of re-reading Arab cultural and literary archives, queer Arabs not only root themselves in a region they have been told their identities are foreign to, but frame the Middle East as a whole as enduringly queer through a re-reading of cultural kitsch and historical non-normativity. The presentation engages digital archives of Arab camp and non-normativity published on platforms like Instagram. Rather than reading these archives as attempts to locate ‘authentic’ queer Arabs, I read them as pointing to traces of non-normativity that haunt the Arab past and present through its cultural spheres. I argue that these ghosts, through their archiving and reframing, are utilised as anchors through which queer Arabs can relate to both their region and their identities in ways that transform both Arabness and queerness. I approach queer Arabness through the lens of becoming rather than being, as well as through a dialectical frame, thinking through the ways in which contemporary queer engagements with mainstream Arab popular culture and classic literary history are productive of both Arab queerness and queer Arabness. I challenge the tendency to think queer Arabness through the binary of the authentic and inauthentic, the indigenous and foreign, which freezes it in time, and approach it through a queer lens on identity as always already unstable and malleable. I attempt to make sense of the turn towards regional cultural production and buried histories as a queer tactic for cultivating belonging and affinity via a transcending of normative space-time. What does the publicising and archiving of the same-sex practices of caliphs, or the transformation of pop divas into drag mothers, do not only for queer Arabs but for Arabness? What happens if we think queer and Arab dialectically, as transforming one another and becoming something new and otherwise through their fusing? What is the potentiality of queer Arabness and how does it exceed both queerness and Arabness? Why is it that mainstream popular culture in particular which, on its surface, appears heteronormative, has served as a means through which queer Arabs can locate themselves in the homes that tried to reject them? And, finally, what does a queer re-reading of mainstream Arab popular culture do to Arabness?