The discourse by placing importance on archival research

The key readings I
address in this paper are concerned with an investigation of the impact Orientalism
had on the discourses of sexuality in the Middle East, in a historical setting.

The paper also touches upon the need to localize readings of past sexualities by
dwelling into one’s own historically determined notions so as to empower the
current LGBT movements in the region.

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When a reference to
history in this context is made, it doesn’t just address the stories of a
cultures “sexual existence” but also the various ways in which such stories are
“discovered and circulated” as well as the “temporal frameworks” they reside in
(Traub 2008:8). Stavros (2004:77) in his paper mentions the dependency on the
western travellers narratives as crucial to the knowledge of male dancers since
Turkish writers from that era regarded dancing as a “wicked” activity. However,
these descriptions and travellers account described the male dancers to be
indecent and “beastly” and their lustful movements concealing sexual codes and desire,
went against the European “sexual ethics” and morals (Ibid:77). Contrary to the
female dancers, the male dancing body was turning the “heterosexual colonial
field into a homoerotic” one, posing a dramatic challenge to western conventional
expectations of “gendered behavior” (Ibid:73,76)

 

Riding on “bourgeois
moral pretensions”, they felt a need to remain closeted in their narratives and
did not want to fall into the “traps of low passion”, even though some accounts
betray a sense of anxiety and excitement over the male body (Stavros
2004:72,84). The descriptions refused to acknowledge male desire inherent in
the dancing bodies and revealed a sense of discomfort. This is evident in a
line from one of the accounts stating – “The dancer is superb not as a male
dancer but because he is as a young girl” (Ibid:84).  The European gaze saw the dancers body as
“threatening and enticing” and rendered the male dance perverse and unnatural. This
was also viewed as a threat to the notions of masculinity. Stavrou (2004:95) highlights
an important account by one writer who described the population of the male
dancers as very “small” in number.

 

Stravrou’s examination
of Western interaction with the Middle East male dancing bodies reveals its affect
on the earlier colonial discourse and its strong influence on contemporary
attitudes.  The dance form, in the West
and other parts of the world, has come to be seen as exclusively female in
connection to women’s liberation, thereby totally overlooking the “cherished
cultural institution” of the male dancers in the Middle East (Stavros 2004:95).

The writer’s insistence on highlighting this shift in discourse by placing
importance on archival research and visuals proves helpful in studying the
impact of the Oriental gaze and how it has contributed to contemporary notions.

 

 

The discussion of
contemporary notions and the erasure of historically rich traditions play out well
in Amer’s (2012:381) text, ‘Naming to Empower’ which investigates the
“imitation of western labels and questions their usefulness” in the current
Arab society. The association of sexual identity with “modernity” and the
“West” provides a complex over look on the placement of lesbian and gay discourses
in Islamic cultures (Traub 2008:2). It’s important to begin by recognizing that
homosexuality is considered a western import in many Arab countries and the use
of western terms like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ only reinforces the idea of it being
an alien concept. Amer (2012:381) stresses the need to study the very “rich
traditions on alternate sexual practices that have existed in the Islamicate
world since the 9th Century.” An examination and reclaiming of this
tradition along with its associated terminology helps challenge the claim that
homosexuality is a western import and provides the “contemporary Arab gays and
Lesbians” empowerment and indigenous “modes of resistance” to challenge local
homophobic attitudes along with the “hegemony of Western sexual and cultural
imperialism.”  (Ibid:381)

 

Amer (2012:382) throws
light on the fact that Arabic does not have any appropriate terms to articulate
one’s sexuality and those that exist are harsh slangs, vulgar and negative in
use, resulting in the reinforcement of already widespread prejudice against the
community.  The lack of terminology
provides us an insight into the struggles of the LGBT community in “asserting
their identity” and this situation is brought out in the case of lesbians who
reported that they “did not even know how to label what they felt” (Ibid:382). Where
attempts have been made to formulate new terms, they have been modeled on the
existing western vocabulary through literal translations. And it is at this
point Amer raises a crucial question on the importance of digging into one’s own
literary history to formulate meaningful and relatable terms rather than just
appropriating western terminology to describe the “Muslim gay and lesbian
community” in the Arab world (Ibid:389,383) Relying on foreign words represents
“legacies of colonialism” and alienates the “poor and working class” Arab gays
and lesbians (Ibid:386).

 

A study of the rich
medieval Arab literature1
has revealed the prevalence of alternate sexual practices which gives Arab
lesbians a long “indigenous literary and cultural tradition” to draw from and
validate their experiences along with challenging conventional “social
attitudes” (Amer 2012:388). There is a need to formulate culturally meaningful
terms based on these historical accounts and provide them to explore “non-western
ways of being gay” (Ibid:387,388). This allows the community to “embrace their
Arab lineage and reclaim Arabic language and enables them to reject the idea
that homosexuality is a western import, especially in the face of Islamic
fundamentalist regime (Ibid:393). It also instills in them a sense of pride,
which I personally believe is an important tool in one’s resistance.

 

From the readings, we
gather that the Orientalist attitude of the west impacted and shifted the
discourses on sexuality in the Middle East, affecting the present. However, a
deeper look into the historiography and reclamation of the past should not be
underestimated, as it can truly be helpful in shaping the present.

1
Jawami al-Ladhdha from 10th century tells us the story of the first
lesbian couple.

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