Sa’ed Atshan, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sa’ed Atshan (SA): I had three major motivations. One was to provide an autoethnographic account of my own consciousness as a queer Palestinian. Another was to trace the rise of the LGBTQ movement in Palestine and its transnational solidarity netwoks. Finally, I wanted to contribute to social science scholarship on social movements in the Middle East and beyond.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SA: I argue that the critique of imperialism has been transformed into an “empire of critique.” The book demonstrates how queer Palestinians are subjected to surveillance, policing, and criticism from all directions, including Israeli state institutions, queer Zionist activists, Palestinian authorities, Palestinian religious institutions, the Palestinian family unit, and Western-based journalists, filmmakers, and academics. This has led to what I call “radical purism” among activists who police each other and queer Palestinians for ideological purity, reflecting how the empire of critique turns inward.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SA: I published another book, The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians (Duke University, 2020), with Katharina Galor (Brown University). The issues we address in that book are very different from those explored in Queer Palestine. The Moral Triangle examines the relationship between Germans, Israelis, and Palestinians in contemporary Berlin, with an emphasis on how trauma, migration, state and societal moral responsibility, and restorative justice intersect.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SA: I am blessed that Queer Palestine has already been received very well and widely. It has been assigned on many syllabi for undergraduate and graduate courses across the United States and in different parts of the world. I am thrilled that the book is resonating with scholars in fields including Middle East studies, gender and sexuality studies, and anthropology. It is important to me that activists, practitioners, and folks involved in social movements also recognize themselves in the book and find its insights to be relevant to their invaluable work. I have been inspired that activists in the queer Palestinian movement (both locally and in the diaspora) and in other progressive movements globally are able to access the book and find its provocations to be constructive and generative.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SA: Phillip Ayoub (Occidental College) and I have just begun a new research project tracing the transnational networks that connect queer activists across the Middle East and North Africa region.
J: What do you envision for the future of queer studies as it relates to Middle Eastern studies?
SA: It has been difficult for me, over the years, to not be struck by the homophobia in Middle Eastern studies. Our field is not immune from the homophobia of the region in which our work is grounded. Not only is there a dearth of ethnographically informed contemporary scholarship on queerness particularly in the Arab world, but even naming the realities of homophobia remains a struggle for so many scholars of the region from across the political spectrum. That being said, I am heartened by the rise of young scholars who are challenging this homophobia and who are insisting on the urgent need for more rigorous and nuanced research on LGBTQ communities and populations in the Middle East.
Excerpt from the book (from the Preface, pp. vii – xiv)
I trace my queer consciousness to 1999, when I was a fifteen-year-old adolescent. I have vivid memories of the time I spent with my male friends, filled with laughter and joy. But I also experienced bewilderment and disorientation when we looked at pictures of women and when my friends expressed their attraction to them.
“Why do I not desire the same? Why am I finding myself drawn to other boys?” I asked myself. But the mere thought of exploring the answers to my questions led to feelings of deep shame. There was no conceptual tool kit or vocabulary and no words in Arabic that came to mind to help me navigate what was becoming a journey of self-discovery.
“When two men lie together in bed, the throne of God shakes with anger!” After hearing these words from a preacher through the loudspeakers of a local mosque as I walked past it one day, I vowed to never let anyone know about the thoughts raging inside me.
I then became particularly sensitive when strangers and family members commented that my voice was not deep enough, my grip not firm enough, my walk not straight enough, or my posture not bold enough. I felt grateful and relieved that I attended the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker institution established in Palestine in 1869. Books become my sanctuary, and theater became my escape. I loved taking on roles as Tiresias and King Arthur, because they made me feel as if I could project a more masculine self.
The Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, was omnipresent in 2001. I remember the visceral malaise in my stomach from eating only lentils while trapped under military curfew. The sounds of helicopters, bulldozers, bombs, funeral processions, and protests all around us were frightening, but eventually I could not fall asleep unless I heard the shooting outside. The soldiers raided our house, targeting the men. They took my grandfather, father, and me for questioning. I trembled with fear. “Be strong; be a man.” I could hear my father saying that to me without him even having to utter the words. But he, too, was quivering. I was frozen while attempting to broaden my shoulders.
I pushed myself harder than ever that year, achieving the rank of first in my class and being elected president of the student government. Yet nothing cured the melancholy of realizing that I could not live up to the expectations of hegemonic masculinity placed on men in my society.
I was thrilled to arrive at Swarthmore College in 2002, an institution outside of Philadelphia that was also founded by the Quakers. The violence of the Second Intifada continued back home. I worried about my family every day, and I was consumed with guilt for leaving my people behind for this idyllic campus, all of which is an arboretum. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, were still fresh. “I never knew there was affirmative action for terrorists!” A fellow student exclaimed that after discovering my Palestinian background. I was in shock. I wracked my brain for a response but was frozen in silence.
Being one of a few token Arab students was challenging. But I loved my experience overall. And I was committed to fitting Middle Eastern Studies into my academic pursuits while educating my peers about the region and promising myself to try to never be silent about anything again.
I also read Audre Lorde for the first time. She writes, “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
I developed the courage to speak with openly queer students but soon found I could not escape my feelings of alienation. Gripped by my anxiety about coming to terms with who I am given the constant violence back home, I had difficulty relating to queer students. I remember how my sense of isolation deepened when a peer was complaining that his parents were pressuring him to limit himself to a single boyfriend; he wanted to pursue multiple partners. The difference between our concerns at that time was vast. Silence continued its hold on me.
In the summer after my sophomore year, I stepped out of the train station in the Castro District of San Francisco for the first time. I stood at the top of the hill, with the enormous rainbow flag above me and smaller rainbow flags at each stop sign below. Numerous same-sex couples were holding hands or walking all around me. I could not hold back my tears. A stranger saw me, walked over, gave me a hug, and said, “I know. I know. It will be okay.”
Through my internship at the American Civil Liberties Union in California that summer, I had unconsciously made a gay pilgrimage to San Francisco. There I discovered the group SWANABAQ (South West Asian and North African Bay Area Queers). It finally dawned on me that I was not the only gay Arab on the planet. I had my first relationship that summer, began to accept myself, and then revealed my sexual orientation to my closest friends. But I remained vigilant about protecting my privacy.
I spent the fall semester of my junior year of college at the American University in Cairo and then the spring semester at the American University of Beirut. Farha Ghannam, my advisor and mentor at Swarthmore and a brilliant Middle East anthropologist, introduced me to anthropology and helped me gain a deep appreciation for the discipline. She also served as my faculty mentor for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a scholarship program for minority students interested in becoming academics. Ghannam encouraged me to conduct thesis research comparing the LGBTQ communities in Beirut and Cairo. I fell in love with ethnography and found it exhilarating to be immersed in queer social milieus in the Middle East. I spent significant time in Beirut at Helem (“Dream” in Arabic), the first LGBTQ organization in the Arab world. This allowed me to bring together two salient identities: being queer and being Arab. Up until that point, I had experienced these identities only in tension with each other, and it has simply been with time that I have learned to appreciate how connected they are in me.
I graduated from Swarthmore in the spring of 2006, receiving an award the institution named that year—the Edward Said/Audre Lorde Scholar-Activism Award. It was an honor, but it was also daunting to receive because of my experiences with impostor syndrome in the academy and because of how towering both those figures were in my intellectual and political imagination.
With both apprehension and excitement, I arrived at Harvard University that fall, matriculating at the Kennedy School of Government for the master’s in public policy program. I was eager to undergo professional graduate training after my liberal arts undergraduate education. The knots in my stomach I had the first year of college returned to me that fall when I realized that I was the only Palestinian student at the Kennedy School and merely one of a handful of the LGBTQ caucus members there. It was in becoming increasingly open about my Palestinian and queer identities that I grew more secure, self-loving, and at ease at Harvard.
I confided in a dear friend about my sexuality, and he became deeply uncomfortable. I had been very close with him and his family in Ramallah. They were devout Palestinian Christians, and his father worked for a local church. The religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam in the Levant have been inhospitable to compassionate reception of homosexuality in the contemporary context. When I went to see my friend and to visit his family the next day, his father opened the door, his face filled with sadness, and then informed me that he was the only one home. He invited me to sit on the rooftop with him and proceeded to say that my friend had revealed to him that I was gay and that this is unacceptable in our society. He said that I could not speak with them anymore unless I sought to change my sexuality through particular church services. It was devastating for me to bear the pain this caused. I looked at the sun as it began to set, felt the breeze of the evening air, mustered every bit of strength I could, and then graciously replied that it was not possible for me to change. No one from that family has spoken to me since.
During my last night at home that summer, as I looked around into the caring eyes of my family members, I imagined them withdrawing their love for me if they discovered my secret. The thought of living in exile as a result of familial homophobia was too much to bear.
I decided that it was time to come out to my broader family. My mother’s response will be with me forever. Upon sharing that I am gay with her in Arabic, she replied,
The reason that I am crying is that I cannot believe you have gone through all of this without me. I wish that I had been able to be by your side. But I am now comforted that you have come to me. I am proud of you for how far you have come. I did know deep down inside, like every mother does, but we hold on to the doubt until it is confirmed to us otherwise. I want you to know that my respect for you has only increased. This is something incredibly difficult in our society, but you are my son. I love you, forever and always.”
No words of my own have ever been able to communicate the depth of my gratitude for her words.