Ghassan Moussawi, Disruptive Situations: Fractal Orientalism and Queer Strategies in Beirut (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ghassan Moussawi (GM): The idea for this book emerged in 2009 when I came across a journalistic article in the New York Times called “Beirut, The Provincetown of the Middle East,” by Patrick Healy (2009). This piece positioned Beirut as an exceptional “gay friendly” destination in the Arab World for what it called its “nascent” and “flourishing” gay life. Upon conducting some research, I found that popular Euro-American media had started hailing Beirut as a destination for gay tourism in the Middle East since the Syrian troops’ withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. However, rather than simply using Orientalist frameworks, such journalists use what I call “fractal Orientalism,” or “Orientalisms within the Middle East.” Fractals are nested dichotomies which employ binaries as fractals to distinguish between parts of the Middle East that are marked as “traditional” and “backward,” and others as “modern” and “progressive.” These distinctions produce Lebanon as exceptional and gay friendly, i.e., “modern,” only in relation to other Arab cities. Fractal Orientalism is multi-scalar—that is, it employs similar tropes and binaries at the global, regional, national, and city level.
Since 2005, such depictions have cited Lebanon’s religious and sectarian diversity, and “nascent” gay life, as signs of cosmopolitanism and modernity. However, life in Beirut remains highly precarious. The period from 2005-2016 was marked by a series of assassinations, the Israeli war in 2006, multiple suicide bombings, a shortage of basic services (such as electricity and clean water), and a garbage crisis. I wanted to investigate what such discourses of gender and sexual exceptionalism do in places like Beirut. What do they conceal/hide and/or make possible? I found that the supposed “gay friendliness” attributed to Lebanon obscures ongoing conditions of instability in Beirut.
A crucial point that I wanted to underscore was to move away from minoritizing LGBT populations; rather, I destabilize the seemingly coherent narrative of queerness in Beirut by attending to transnational flows of discourses of modernity, progress, and cosmopolitanism. While other studies and journalistic articles, like Healy’s (2009), seek to look for or document the lives of gay men in Beirut, Disruptive Situations unpacks how LGBTQ persons negotiate daily life disruptions in Beirut in order to better understand “disruptive situations” and paradoxes of modernity.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
GM: The book proposes a methodological intervention in the study of queer lives and situations, by mobilizing the voices of LGBTQ people in understanding larger questions about war, violence, and precarity. Based on ethnographic research and interviews with LGBTQ individuals in Beirut, Disruptive Situations intervenes in portrayals of Arab LGBTQ persons as homogeneous minorities. Current understandings of transnational sexualities, including non-normative gender and sexualities in the Middle East, conceptualize LGBTQ people as a discernable category and minority. Rather than documenting or looking for the possibilities of LGBTQ life, I ask: what can everyday queer tactics tell us about the local and regional politics?
Disruptive Situations challenges how sexuality has been used to provide an exceptional narrative about contemporary Beirut and modernity. It offers an alternative to the neoliberal narratives of Lebanese and Beiruti exceptionalism, highlighting the power of everyday “disruptive situations” in shaping LGBTQ life. I theorize the concept of al-wad’, or “the situation,” a nebulous term used by my interlocutors and people in Lebanon to refer to various “disruptive situations” caused by geopolitics, displacement, conflict, political instability, and wars. I raise questions about spaces beyond Beirut, by asking what al-wad’ has to say about queer life in contexts where precarity and disruptions are the conditions of everyday social and cultural life.
Disruptive Situations employs the lens of al-wad’ in the Arab World to understand everyday life’s disruptions and violence. Using postcolonial feminist and queer theoretical approaches, the book investigates LGBTQ individuals’ various negotiations or “queer strategies” in navigating these everyday disruptions, with a focus on mobilities and access to space. For example, I consider movements within and across the city, crossing neighborhood borders, and access to “gay-friendly” spaces and communities of organizing. I argue that class, and not gay friendliness, is what determines who is able to experience Beirut as “gay friendly.”
Rather than using Beirut as a backdrop, I consider “queer Beirut” to be constituted and constitutive of the disruptions and violences of the city. During my fieldwork, during the height of the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) suicide bombings, I found that the everyday precarity, which I normalized in living and thinking about Beirut, is the lens by which we can understand what I call “queer strategies” of everyday survival.
Disruptive Situations makes three main interventions. One, it re-shifts the focus of transnational and queer studies of sexuality from culture, to issues such as geopolitics and political economy. Two, it challenges the Orientalist thinking that frames knowledge on non-normativity in the Arab Middle East. Three, it makes a methodological contribution by employing ethnographic research at times of violence and disruption.
Unlike current ethnographic and interview-based research, it does not study “gay Beirut,” nor does it seek to document gay life in the city. Rather, it builds on theoretical work that analyzes and critiques linear narratives of progress and modernity in accounts of non-normative gender and sexualities in the Arab Middle East and the Muslim world. However, it does depart from such works by privileging the affective dimensions of such discourses and how LGBTQ individuals articulate and negotiate them in their everyday lives.
Even though fractal Orientalism and fractals are useful in thinking about the production of binaries, they have their limitations in fully accounting for how differences are negotiated, felt, and experienced. I offer the lens of “disruptive situations” as an alternative framework to fractals, which pay attention to the political economy of producing these distinctions.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
GM: This book is a highly revised and altered version of my dissertation. It connects to my interests in the everyday and seemingly banal or overlooked aspects of life. It prioritizes affect in a situation where normative life is always that of disruption. It also connects to my interests in social inequalities and questions such as who has access to spaces, who is considered “respectably queer,” and how violence shapes our conceptions of gender and sexuality. It departs from my previous work by shifting the focus away from identity formation to geopolitics in understanding everyday life.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
GM: My hopes are two-fold. First, I hope that the book will make people rethink and expand the uses of queer theory by focusing on queer situations and not communities. Second, the book hopes to move away from regarding LGBTQ persons in the Arab World as resilient victims and/or heroes. Resiliency narratives erase the role of structural inequalities in shaping people’s lives and instead become catch-all phrases to describe the conditions of vulnerable populations, such as refugees, trans and genderqueer peoples, working class individuals, and migrant domestic workers.
Disruptive Situations complicates transnational queer and sexuality studies and queer theory. While the field of queer studies destabilizes identities and interrogates modes of knowing about the social world, its reliance on categories of normativity has been understated. That is, queer theory presumes a normative standard that needs to be “shaken” or “upset”. I ask instead: what becomes of queer life when conditions of everyday life upset the tethering of a normative baseline that queer theory presumes exists? In other words, what analyses can “queer” studies offer when everyday disruptions and precarity are the conditions of social and cultural life?
By regarding normativity as a contested category, I focus on the tensions between queer modes of life and an already queer situation. Moving away from perspectives that view life amidst disruptions as a reflection of exceptionalism or triumphalism, I contend that transnational studies of queer lives should be understood through a consideration of the “geopolitics of sexuality.”
I also hope that the book can make others think about the uses of queer theory beyond gender and sexuality. For example, even though the queer strategies I discuss in the book are enacted by LGBTQ people, that is not necessarily always the case. People have to use queer strategies of survival in negotiating life in cities where violence is the norm.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
GM: I am working on several projects on “bad feelings,” especially trauma, embarrassment and shame, as they come across during fieldwork and take a life of their own. I try to highlight the productive ways in which acknowledging such bad feelings can orient us to larger questions and subjects of inquiry that we tend to ignore or take for granted.
J: Can you tell us about the image on the book’s front cover? What is its significance?
GM: The image I chose is that of a neon fractal; it reflects the ongoing and circular nature of time and life in Beirut. I did not want to provide an image of people, since the idea of the book is to depart from fetishizing LGBTQ peoples, especially in the Middle East and the Global South.
Excerpt from the book
For as long as I can remember, people in Beirut have used the term al-wad’ to capture the complexity of everyday violence, disruptions, and lack of basic services. Al-wad’ is the Arabic equivalent of the term “the situation,” which can also refer to “circumstance(s); condition(s); position; setting; . . . state (of affairs or things as they are)” or “status.” “The situation,” then, is a general and nebulous term, commonly used in post–civil war Lebanon to refer to the shifting conditions of instability in the country that constantly shape everyday life. It simply refers to the ways that things are, the normative ordering of things and events. However, it produces feelings of constant unease, anticipation of the unknown or what the future might bring, and daily anxieties. Perhaps this feeling is best captured by my conversation with a cab driver in May 2019, when the driver describes the feelings of anxiety and fear of the unknown that al-wad’ produces as living “in a state of everyday war.”
It is not uncommon for people to use unclear terms when speaking about conflicts, which serve as vague containers for histories (and ongoing situations) of trauma, violence, and struggles. For example, people in Lebanon distinguish between “the events” (al-ahdath) in reference to the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990) and “the situation” (al-wad’). In a place where there is no shared narrative or history of the civil war or postwar reconciliation among people, these vague terms help keep a form of peace. Though one might wish to analogize al-wad’ to “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland or “the Conflict” in Israel and Palestine, it does not carry the same connotation or even affective resonance, since the term “situation,” unlike “trouble” or “conflict,” does not necessarily convey something negative. Al-ahdath, which is similar to al-wad’, is a disaffected and nebulous term, yet it signifies more than just “the everyday situation.” However, al-ahdath, the Conflict, and the Troubles all refer to conflicts and histories of partition that are racialized.
Having such a seemingly neutral and nebulous term to describe circumstances of a place and people reflects the difficulty of finding words that can capture or express what the situation actually is. “The situation” is a term that. in English might refer to a particular situation and might not carry much weight; in the Lebanese context, however, al-wad’ is a loaded term. In Beirut, people share their anxieties and experiences of al-wad’ as imminent disruptions and refer to it in conversations with one another without having to explain. The term establishes a shared sense of knowledge and feeling among people in Lebanon. A person who needs to have the term explained is marked as an outsider to al-wad’. Because there is no clear beginning or end to al-wad’—it is constantly changing—what remains is its disruptive and affective elements. Perhaps the power of al-wad’ is its generality and untranslatability. to those who do not experience it as a daily, precarious, and normative state. What happens when the way that things are or the normative baseline implies constant yet shifting disruptions? My interlocutors use the term al-wad’ to name a condition but also to reveal the kinds of queer tactics or strategies that become necessary under such disruptive conditions. These queer tactics also gesture toward an expansive understanding of queerness—one that does not necessarily link to LGBT identities but to practices of negotiating everyday life.
This book uses the concept of al-wad’ in two ways: (1) to describe the historical context and the backdrop of the research and to capture the challenges and precarity that shape everyday life and (2) to serve as a metaphor and analytical tool to help understand queer strategies of everyday life in Beirut. The queer strategies enacted by my interlocutors also disrupt dominant discourses of Beirut’s exceptionalism and gay life in Beirut. My use of the term “disruptive situations” might betray the concept of al-wad’, since it assumes that there are moments or times when life is not disrupted. Al-wad’ is the situation that is always disruptive. It serves as a description as well as. a metaphor for the challenges and precarity as a result of war and strife that shape quotidian life; it occurs when the out of the ordinary becomes the. normal. In other words, al-wad’ is a way of describing queer times. Though language ultimately fails in articulating or accounting for what al-wad’ actually is, affect does not.