Queer Beirut paves the way for a timely anthropological conversation about gender and queer identities in both Middle Eastern studies and urban studies.
Gender and sexual identity formation is an ongoing anthropological conversation in both Middle Eastern studies and urban studies, but the story of gay and lesbian identity in the Middle East is only just beginning to be told. Queer Beirut is the first ethnographic study of queer lives in the Arab Middle East. Drawing on anthropology, urban studies, gender studies, queer studies, and sociocultural theory, Sofian Merabet’s compelling ethnography suggests a critical theory of gender and religious identity formations that will disrupt conventional anthropological premises about the contingent role that society and particular urban spaces have in facilitating the emergence of various subcultures within the city.
From 1995 to 2014, Merabet made a series of ethnographic journeys to Lebanon, during which he interviewed numerous gay men in Beirut. Through their life stories, Merabet crafts moving ethnographic narratives and explores how Lebanese gays inhabit and perform their gender as they formulate their sense of identity. He also examines the notion of “queer space” in Beirut and the role that this city, its class and sectarian structure, its colonial history, and religion have played in these people’s discovery and exploration of their sexualities. In using Beirut as a microcosm for the complexities of homosexual relationships in contemporary Lebanon, Queer Beirut provides a critical standpoint from which to deepen our understandings of gender rights and citizenship in the structuring of social inequality within the larger context of the Middle East.
List of Illustrations
Prologue. Itinerant Journeys
Map of Lebanon
Map of Beirut
1. Producing Queer Space in Beirut: Zones of Encounter in Post-Civil-War Lebanon
2. Producing Prestige in and around Beirut: The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the Assertion of a Queer Presence
3. Walking through the Concrete Jungle: The Queer Urban Stroller Traveling amid de Certeau, Benjamin, and Bourdieu
4. Queer Performances and the Politics of Place: The Art of Drag and the Routine of Sectarianism
5. The Homosexual Sphere between Spatial Appropriation and Contestation: Collective Activism and the Many Lives of Young Gay Men in Beirut
6. The Queering of Closed and Open Spaces: Spatial Practices and the Dialectics of External and Internal Homophobia
7. The Gay Gaze on the Corniche and the Politics of Memory: A Stroll on the Corniche and a Walk through Zoq q al-Bl
8. “Seeing Oneself” and the Mirror Stage: The amm m and the Gay Icon Fairuz
9. Phenomenology and the Spatial Assertion of Queerness: Spatial Alienation, Anthropology, and Urban Studies
10. Raising the Rainbow Flag between City and Country: Dancing, Protesting, and the Mimetics of Everyday Life
Conclusion. Struggling for Difference
On the third floor of his slightly dilapidated hotel in Beirut’s Ḥamra district, Rachid stands bare-chested on a concrete balcony and looks down on the evening rush hour unfurling along Makdisi Street. He is quite a handsome man in his late twenties. Nonetheless, his red hair and the countless ginger-colored freckles that cover his fine-looking face and brawny body deter a certain number of his contemporaries, who would have otherwise courted him fervidly. Rather on the short side, Rachid is well built without ever having entered a gym. He pays close attention to his outward appearance. His haircut is always meticulous with a hint at the fashion of the moment. Indeed, almost all of his modest earnings are spent on the type of clothes worn in trendy circles in Milan, Paris, or Madrid. Yet, Rachid stands on the hotel’s balcony without any kind of ostentation, his eyes fixed on the passersby below as they compete with the countless cars for sovereignty over sidewalk and street.
Rachid is not a tourist, visiting Beirut on a summer holiday. Rather, he had moved temporarily to the capital from his native Tripoli in northern Lebanon to take a job in the advertisement section of one of the main Lebanese private TV stations. In fact, he sort of commutes, albeit not on a daily basis, spending the week in and around the Ḥamra district of Beirut, while “going home,” as he would put it, to Tripoli’s Al-Mina neighborhood on the weekends.1 When we met in 2001, Rachid had been working for some two years at a job arranged by his long-time partner, Khalil. His various family connections provided Khalil with lifelong access to power and privilege envied by most men of the Lebanese lower-middle classes, such as Rachid.
Rachid and Khalil had met seven years earlier on Paradise Beach, the outhernmost extension of Jbeil’s bustling seashore located about thirty seven kilometers (twenty-three miles) north of Beirut. With a strong Arabic intonation, all and sundry called the sandy stretch al-baradays, thus turning the bilabial stop of the English letter p into the Arabic-voiced bilabial plosive b—as in bayrūt, for instance. At the time, Rachid was nineteen and an art student at Ballamand University, a Greek Orthodox institution with a beautiful campus overlooking the southern suburbs of the country’s second-largest city, Tripoli. Khalil was twenty-eight, and, for many years, this difference in age made it impossible for Rachid to introduce this mysterious “friend” to his family. His parents and his two younger brothers initially grew to know Khalil through countless stories about the “Christian friend from affluent Rabieh,” the upper-class enclave in northeastern Beirut.
But Rachid never revealed his growing romantic relationship in the stories he told his family. He commented to me years later that, even though the subject of his homosexuality was taboo at home, it was not unbeknownst to his parents. He kept saying, “Maʿun khabar . . . bass mā byaḥkū” (They know . . . but they just don’t talk [about it]). Instead of talking about his sexual orientation, Rachid’s parents advised their eldest son repeatedly to get married. Yet, despite all parental advice, Rachid and Khalil continued their regular rendezvous throughout the second half of the 1990s, meeting almost every Sunday afternoon on Jbeil’s Paradise Beach.
An Anthropology of Sexual Difference
This ethnographic vignette sheds an introductory light on the romantic involvement of two Lebanese men and the numerous challenges they encountered within what I call “queer Beirut.” The following pages focus on various experiences of queer-identified individuals and explore how men such as Rachid and Khalil navigate the complex microcosm of intimate rendezvous and intricate homosexual relationships in Lebanon. This microcosm is based on a fertile social, emotional, and moral milieu, where the negotiation of dissident sexualities takes place against a heteronormative formulaic backdrop and, at the same time, shapes the human geography of queer identity formation. This complex microcosm also conveys a particular social logic of self-imagining and self-projection, which points to a dynamic interpretation and a potential challenge to a number of normative interpellations. In Lebanon, such interpretations and challenges are enacted spatially and through intricate bodily performances, and they often culminate with a dramatic unfolding on the streets and balconies of Beirut.
Yet, apart from being the story of Rachid and Khalil, this anthropological investigation into sexual difference is also an ethnography of the city within which dissident sexualities live. It traces the genealogy of contemporary constructions of norms and forms of social inclusion and exclusion within the urban fabric of Beirut and, through a focus on its margins, develops a critical socio-cultural paradigm for the study of sexuality in and around the city. Moreover, by examining the formations of Lebanese queer identities in relation to global processes of circulation and translation of gender models and ideas, this book tackles the subject of contested identities and sexual difference through an interdisciplinary approach that positions the importance of gender and sexual identities at the center of an often over-simplified political understanding of the very notion of identity. In Lebanon, that notion has traditionally been defined on the basis of sectarian and religious affiliation. I attempt to complement and expand on such a notion by providing a critical standpoint from which to deepen our understandings of gender rights and citizenship in the structuring of social inequality within the larger context of the Arab world. I explore, therefore, the performative bodily practices of gendering for young Lebanese gay men as they formulate their sense of what it means to “exist” among the numerous physical and mental maps of an urban grid that is perpetually disputed by its various inhabitants.
The present work is heavily influenced by the writings of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau on theories of practice or what I call the individual making of meaning within the larger context of everyday life in Beirut. In drawing attention to various manifestations of public culture in Lebanon and the ways in which they take form in daily processes of urban identity formations, I take these manifestations as the framework within which to explore the performative practices of gendering in a highly globalized urban milieu. Based on a broad interdisciplinary approach, my research intends ultimately to open the door for a timely anthropological conversation about gender and queer identities in both Middle East and Urban Studies. It draws on a critical theory of gender and religious identity formations that can disrupt conventional anthropological premises about the contingent role that particular spaces have in facilitating the emergence of various subcultures within the city.
How can an anthropologist write about these spaces, along with the performative bodily practices of gendering, and other modes of queer identity formation? How can one address the local politics of homosexual disavowal and homophobia, especially in conjunction with what I call “queer space” and its contested production in a city such as Beirut? Similar to the analytical subject treated here, one that constitutes a significant part of Lebanon’s socio-cultural landscape, the answers to both questions are directly connected to the ways in which one evaluates a perpetually changing global landscape, of which the country is an integral part. It is a fluctuating landscape that needs to be addressed by an intellectual tradition that can be considered neither as one monolithic body, with a coherent thread running through it, nor as a chronological teleology proceeding from a clear-cut beginning to an explicit end.
Rather, to make sense theoretically of queerness in Beirut, one has to draw on different and, at times, competing methodological angles. The knowledge of space, for instance, along with its social and cultural production, constantly oscillates between cohesive description and circumstantial fragmentation. One describes objects within space or unrelated fragments of space while presenting either an anthropological field site or a geographical place. Yet, one rarely reflects on the intricate ways in which space is socially produced and the relations and consequences that a culturally mindful anthropology entertains with the geography of difference within whose realm it operates.
Lebanon’s capital Beirut is one of these field sites where the anthropologist is constantly reminded of the historically rich and conflicting nature of the urban landscape, its shifting borderlines, and the entrenched interpretations of a variety of spaces that are persistently contested. As the novelist Rabih Alameddine remarks in The Hakawati:
You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.
In trying to illustrate my main point, one that is theoretical as well as ethnographically imbued by storytelling, I shall partake of this “delightful mess” and focus on specific human encounters in different places within the Lebanese capital that come close to the production of queer space. They are often sites in which the socially assumed dichotomy between “public” and “private” cannot be easily applied. Instead, the commonly perceived binary between these two presumably separate spheres gives room to what I understand as being “zones of encounter”—namely, particular urban locations that foster attempts, with various levels of success, to transcend spatio-temporal fixities.
Through various kinds of personal interactions—ranging from the informal conversation on an apparently random street corner to a highly encoded verbal, and at times nonverbal, communication involving suggestive gazes and bodily postures—these fixities, along with their sociocultural correlates, come to be challenged precisely in those locations in and around Beirut that usher in different kinds of individual and collective representations. In dialogue with the French urbanist-philosopher Henri Lefebvre, I argue that these representations, whose queer character I mean to emphasize, are clearly marked by the individual bodies involved in them. They arise out of a dialectic relationship between a controlled and ordered space, on the one hand, and a contested space, actively appropriated, as well as lived in by all sorts of people and their queer performative corporeality, on the other.
Thus, the idea of lived space, with its countless corresponding intersections, becomes most relevant within the interdisciplinary concept of the “moment” purported by Lefebvre, an instant captured by philosophy, literature, and politics that privileges the spatial—physical and mental— over the temporal, yet without discounting the latter. It is this concept that I endeavor to appropriate in part myself. When I write about zones of encounter in the opening chapter of this book, I refer to an epistemological extension of Lefebvre’s moment—namely, one within which what I call the “homosexual sphere” in a place like Beirut is best captured in its wide-ranging complexity and its impulse to strive toward possible autonomy.
The encounter itself is an intimate moment of sorts. It is to be located first in time, but equally in space. Such intimacy of the moment points also to the very event of meeting between people who would not necessarily have come together had it not been for this particular time and place. Notwithstanding their discreet character, general encounters in Lebanon are always linked to either one or more publicly accessible places—in many cases, a café/restaurant, but possibly also a movie theater or an Internet café. But more often than not, they are linked to the lesser spatial formality of particular streets or street corners scattered all over the city, and even beyond. For example, life on certain streets and avenues in Beirut unveils a kind of metaphysics of space, a poetic divinity, next to which thousands of people may pass without necessarily seeing anything, and which suddenly becomes sensitively tangible and terribly haunting for those who have a particular social stake in it. This intense sensation is certainly not limited to iconic urban pathways like the Corniche, Ḥamra Street, or Rue Monot. It also includes less exposed roads and alleys located in both affluent and marginalized parts of town.
On some sort of canonical mental map, the individuals I interviewed in Beirut are concerned by these particular intricate differences. They will read the social topography of a neighborhood in the Lebanese capital not merely in terms of a grid of real-life streets. Rather, they will perceive and interpret it as a congregation of sites and cultural references. These sites and references loom large in the imaginations of these local, young queer-identified men with whom I interacted over the years in Lebanon. It is this very reason, having to do with the intricacies of a social topography, that made me choose to capture Beirut’s countless congregations of sites and cultural references by literally walking through the entire city, thus indulging in some desperate act of flânerie. My choice translated into a challenging enterprise, if not to say one that bears a queering element, which turned the flâneur into a sort of queer stroller. The challenge was great, for the social conformities of post-civil-war Lebanon coerce many Lebanese to approach their urban center not via public transportation, let alone on foot, but along the routes of a car driver’s paradise, one that is ultimately ill-judged and hauntingly deceptive.
It goes without saying that Beirut is not Los Angeles, so driving the latest American models of sports utility vehicles in the relatively small, and usually car-infested, streets of the Lebanese capital becomes an alltoo-obvious exercise in damaging indulgence. Thus, the local politics of prestige and status symbolizations, privileging the unmistaken agenda of the big and brazen, often define a man by his best phallic friend—i.e., the automobile. To willfully walk through the streets and avenues of Beirut, in either a leisurely or a hurried manner, is anything but a commonly shared activity. The trials of coping with the notorious lack of sidewalks is, at best, something that only a “nobody”—i.e., a status-lacking and condemned pedestrian—may be disposed to take up. As an anthropologist, I would argue, however, that by moving against the noxious grain of fumes and honks, it becomes possible for the researcher, and anybody else interested not in mere numbers but rather in the wider urban ramification of a city like Beirut, to experience an invigorating rupture within an otherwise largely limiting scheme of things. It is, therefore, only as a person on foot in a city that almost makes natural locomotion virtually impossible that the observing anthropologist can start to think about distinguishing many of the urban spaces in Lebanon that bear the potential of creating alternative, and perhaps queer, discourses.
Queer, an Analytic Category
The way I define the term “queer,” a category I use for analytic purposes, is influenced but not limited by early writings of Judith Butler that posit queer as “a site of collective contestation.” In its various redeployments, this potentially rebellious element of the analytic category “queer” can be politically enabling and is etymologically related to the German word quer, which, used in common parlance, refers to “transverse, cross, oblique.” A Querkopf (literally, a queer head), for instance, would be a misfit of sorts, somebody who thinks and translates outside the normative box and against the dominant paradigms. More fittingly, however, a Querdenker (queer thinker) is a lateral—if not to say unconventional— thinker whose very habitus is to invest in the countless ramifications of ever-shifting epistemological intersections. But he is also a sort of prisoner of love, whose captivity is ever entangled with the very object of his desire. Similarly, I would like to argue that queerness and its rebellious character, due to their equal analytical and ethnographic relevance, are always also located on the verge not only of captivity, but also of madness. The Arabic term junūn marks the border of the obsessive and even ecstatic. It implies passion and the unleashing of strong desire toward an object that solicits fluctuating imaginative horizons and the production of corresponding spaces. The majnūn and the majnūna, those who are afflicted with junūn in their singular masculine and feminine forms, are possessed by their unorthodox love for their respective objects of desire, but come often under attack for it by an array of hostile social forces.
By way of introducing a number of social representations of queerness and their rebellious character bordering on junūn, where an apparently controlled and unhampered space is being contested and appropriated by queer-identified individuals who give specific meanings to it, I focus again in the following chapters on the ethnographic example of Rachid and Khalil, who were a romantic couple at the time I met them. At the crucial juncture of the mid-1990s, the microcosm of their intimate relationship paralleled in some ways the macrocosm of a war-torn Beirut trying to forget its violent past. The example also illustrates the dialectic relationship stressed above. The correlation between what is perceived as fixed and what is akin to the individual making of meaning is instrumental in understanding some of the socio-cultural dynamics behind “madness” and “love,” as well as the ever-shifting borderlines of a historically compound and disparate place such as Lebanon. In other words, what you are about to read in Queer Beirut is also about junūn bayrūt.
Queer Beirut is based on a number of ethnographic journeys I made to Lebanon from 1995 to 2014, including an extended stay from summer 2001 to winter 2003–2004, during which I conducted research for my doctoral dissertation. Since 2004, shorter trips have ranged in length from two weeks to three months. Despite regular Israeli attacks, which culminated in ḥarb tammūz, the July 2006 war, and with the exception of my post-2005 fieldwork, my previous ethnographic work reflects some kind of “bubble period,” called otherwise Pax Syriana. This period followed the fifteen years of the civil war (1975–1990) and preceded the unfurling of internal crises that afflicted Lebanon after the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, on February 14, 2005. It was a period of presumed insouciance—maybe one similar to that of my Algerian childhood—that marked the attitude of many Lebanese at the time, even though the clear-headed observer could have predicted that seemingly eternal sublimation was not possible. The ghosts of the past had to return at some point.
Yet, none of this research, practical and theoretical, would have been possible without exploring closely the importance of bodily performances, especially in such a highly “corporeal” country like Lebanon. In what follows, I thus relate individual and collective bodily performances to larger queer encounters on the national stage. It is a stage located on the border of an assumed public and private sphere. Its spatial boundaries symbolize both the encounter as a “meeting place” as well as “cut-off lines” with other social spheres in and around what Michel de Certeau called the “figure of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the substitute for all proper names.” I thus want to address different modes of individual performative practices as they interact with the spatial formations of queer gender identities in Beirut. Drawing on de Certeau’s writings in The Practice of Everyday Life, or “l’invention du quotidien,” as he put it in the original French, I locate performance within an everyday life experience and attempt to look at the various ways in which young gay men, as socio-culturally gendered subjects whose identities are per-formatively “invented” by their bodily expressions, engage in what Judith Butler, in dialogue with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her theory of gender, has called “queer performativity.”
However, these “queer” individuals contest and appropriate their alternative life-worlds not only iteratively within the homosexual sphere, but also spatially within the larger urban context of the Lebanese capital. Along these lines, I want to posit two central questions: How can one understand gay individuals who resist self-identification? And, how is a multi-faceted homophobia within the general discourse of such an urban homosexual sphere socio-culturally explicable?
The answer to these questions is partly found in ethnography and the anthropological attempt to capture the complex reality of de Certeau’s “figure” (i.e., the city). I thus try to give to my text some of the stylistic range occupied by the various encounters, all of which take place and come to pass within the homosexual sphere in Beirut. For one, I include the most “scientific” genre I could handle, albeit one that is less preoccupied with the felt stringency of empirical “facts” and more by a close consideration of what constitutes Wissen and its production within the German notion of Wissenschaft. Second, I dare to venture on occasion on an idiosyncratic exploration into the essay form akin to an ethnographic montage, to borrow from Walter Benjamin’s eclectic theoretical repertoire. This form, I felt, best suited my intellectual endeavors, where the subject of tragedy is often exhibited in comedic form, even if the tragi-comedian in question does not always realize the part he or she is playing. Being as it is, whether my choices are warranted is for the reader alone to decide.
“This monograph . . . is the first of its kind, making it an invaluable contribution to scholarship on queer sexualities, urban space, and social production in Lebanon.”
“Queer Beirut is engaging, sophisticated, and altogether a fascinating read that draws the reader into its world. Its ethnographic passages are deeply poignant and sensitive vignettes of joy and violence, interwoven with descriptions of Beirut coming to life in its spaces and streets, and laced with theoretical nuance.”
Lara Deeb, Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology, Scripps College, and author of An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon and coauthor of Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Morality and Geography in Shi’i Southern Beirut
“This is an extraordinarily good ethnography of mainly gay male lives in Beirut. . . . Nothing like it exists in the literature.”
Steve Caton, Professor of Anthropology and Contemporary Arab Studies, Harvard University, and author of "Peaks of Yemen I Summon": Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe, Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology, and Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Meditation