Novelist Fadi Zaghmout: ‘Many Arabs Are Longing for Sexual Freedoms and Body Rights’

Tomorrow, Jordanian author Fadi Zaghmout will speak in Berlin about his novel The Bride of Ammantrans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp:

From when things were different. Image via Lebanese novelist Rabih Alameddine.
From when things were different. Image via out Lebanese novelist Rabih Alameddine. He writes: “Farewells of Abu-Zayd and Al-Harith before the return to Mecca, from ‘Al Maqamat’ (The Meetings) by Al-Hariri, Syria or Iraq , c.1240 AD / 637 AH. BNF Arab 3929 f.122” Art Resource / Erich Lessing / Bibliothèque Nationale De France, MS. ARABE 58747, FOL.22.

Zaghmout will also read, he says, at a refugee camp in Berlin. After that, Zaghmout heads to London to speak at the Mosaic Rooms on June 17 along with Shereen El Feki, the Egyptian-Welsh author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World.

Zaghmout’s novel is told in alternating voices, in a confessional-blog style, with one of the central characters a closeted gay man who is married to a woman. Although not always artful, it is a cry for women’s and gay men’s rights.

As Zaghmout wrote of the novel yesterday on Facebook:

When I wrote it, I wanted it to be a shoutout, a call for justice, and hopefully a catalyst for change. I didn’t expect it to be welcomed in open arms, with such love, and admiration. It has certainly touched many hearts, and I am glad that my sincerity in writing it, despite lacking the skills of an established experienced writer at the time, helped in its success.

And I can’t express my gratitude towards all of you who stood behind me and supported me and this book. Many Arabs are longing for sexual freedoms and body rights. We march together and fight together and make change together!

Certainly Zaghmout’s novel is not alone in portraying humans as sex-interested beings. There is plenty of consensual sex in the contemporary Arabic novel; Ahmed Naji’s Using Life is not the only Arabic novel where men and women get together outside the bonds of marriage.

Yet Zaghmout’s novel is still at the margins of in contemporary Arabic literature in sympathetically portraying male homosexual desire. Queer and queer-friendly men from Arab-majority countries include Francophone Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa, whose Infidel, translated by Alison Strayer, appeared this month; and Anglophone Saleem Haddad, whose Guapa appeared this year, written in English. There are fewer queer- and queer-friendly authors writing in Arabic, although Palestinian writer Raji Bathish recently gave interviews about his “conscious decision to author queer, sexualized texts” and Palestinian poet Housni Shehada, for instance, launched his 2014 collection at an event sponsored by the Palestinian sexual-and-gender-diversity group al-Qaws.

There are a small but growing number of sympathetic depictions of LGBTQ life in Lebanese literature as well. Lebanese writer Sahar Mandour’s Mina (2013) foregrounds an award-winning gay actress living in Beirut who is outed in a local magazine and forced to leave Beirut, only to return a year later. It hasn’t yet been picked up by an English-language publisher, although Mandour’s 32 appeared this year, translated by Nicole Fares.

Still, anecdotally, neutral or positive depictions of queerness are still overwhelmed by negative ones in Arabic literature, particularly — as Frederic Legrange and Hanadi al-Samman both noted in surveying the landscape — homosexuality as a symbol of social and cultural decline.

This is for instance on display in the book that won the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), Shukri al-Mabkhout’s The Italian, which has not yet appeared in English translation. That book’s social criticism was marred by distinct homophobia, as Ismail Fayed notes in his even-handed review for Mada Masr. However, as Fayed’s review underlines, there is also a critical apparatus in publications like Mada and 7iber to call it out.

However, there are other depictions. Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Cities of this Kitchen, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), also features a key gay character. Khalifa, in an interview with IPAF organizers, deflected criticism of his inclusion of a gay character.

“A moral reading of the novel is the worst possible reading,” Khalifa said. “And writing to preach morality is the worst possible writing. Morality is left to religion and preachers.”

“As for Nezar, he is the only character who is at peace with himself. It is also necessary to acknowledge that homosexuals do exist historically. And now Arab societies are increasingly accepting them.”

Khalifa’s novel is set to appear this fall, in translation by Leri Price, from Hoopoe Fiction.

Brian Whitaker’s blog, Al-Bab, has a select list of novels and short stories with sexual diversity.