Though the Lebanese Civil War was officially declared over in 1990, following 15 years of conflict, tensions across class and sectarian lines continued to divide the community. In Beirut, where neighbourhood demographics remained largely unchanged, militias used stencils and political posters on the city’s walls to venerate warlords and reinforce the divisions that bolstered their control. These visual cues let people know who a neighbourhood belonged to and, accordingly, who was welcome – and who was not.
The postwar era saw the same walls become a canvas for various socio-political discussions: anonymous critiques of government corruption, anti-sectarian rhetoric, feminist and anti-racist slogans, calls to naturalize Palestinian refugees and other agendas encouraged passersby to imagine new identities that could counter the prevailing sectarianism.
In autumn 2007 – between posters of Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen and stern, affectless portraits of electoral candidates – stencils mushroomed overnight that depicted a man saying the words ‘I love him’ in Arabic. Desperate to create space for queerness amidst the city’s battling identities, but frightened of being persecuted by the Lebanese social and legal structure, which then as now criminalizes same-sex desire, anonymous vandalism proved to be the first recourse for the 19-year-old college student and his accomplices who were responsible for the stencil.
While the other identities on the wall found agency and representation across Lebanese media, politics and culture, his would remain ignored. Invisibility and erasure are, after all, some of the technologies employed by heteropatriarchal capitalism to insulate itself from its subalterns. I know this because I was that teenager, and graffiti was how I came out. For the few weeks before the stencils were painted over, Ras Beirut was mine. The queers had won the civil war.
A few months and several stencils later, I found myself on a date with an older graphic design student from a neighbouring university, who was writing his dissertation on Beirut’s street art. Promising to show me stencils I didn’t know existed, he took me to a little alley down one of Hamra’s side streets and brought me to a huge jasmine tree. He then lifted the hanging fragrant branches to reveal a small stencil, designed by Jana Traboulsi, that read: ‘Smelling the jasmine is not allowed.’ That man became the first man who broke my heart, and that stencil inspired the lyrics for Shim el Yasmine (2015), a song I wrote that became known as ‘the first queer love song from the Arab world’ – whatever that means.
Fast-forward to 2017: I am now 29 years old and, having traded anonymity for rock and roll, I’m standing onstage in Cairo alongside three of the Middle East’s finest musicians before an audience of 35,000 people. Together, we form the band Mashrou’ Leila. Throughout the performance, the band and I repeatedly look at each other and laugh because, although we have been touring the world for the better part of the previous decade, this particular concert is special: the audience is singing along with every word so loudly that we can’t hear ourselves play. The air is thick with love and abandon. Then, it happens: two people in different parts of the audience climb upon their friends’ shoulders and unfurl rainbow flags. The audience cheers. (That part is often left out of the story, the cheering.) They are, after all, watching a band with an openly queer frontperson. For the rest of the night, we all feel safe. We are all seen. We are all loved. Those two people are Sarah Hegazy and Ahmed Alaa and, for one night, Cairo is theirs. The queers have won the Arab Spring.
The following week is a blur. As we make our way to the airport, the morning after the show, we start receiving reports about discontent in the media. We check our bags, then hear something about an arrest warrant for a Lebanese band. We board the plane, take off and spend the following five hours in radio silence. When we land at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, we hear about a belly dancer named Lemonda getting arrested because of alleged associations with our band. We then board our flight to New York. By the time we land at JFK, Egyptian news stations are saying that thousands of perverts gathered for a gay satanic orgy in the heart of Cairo and Al-Azhar University has issued a fatwa. Death threats and insults are flying everywhere. Then come the arrests: 75 people are locked up over the course of a week. Some of them are arrested after showing up to fake dates set up by undercover police officers. And then there’s Sarah and Ahmed. Pictures of them holding rainbow flags at the concert circulate on social media as proof of the depraved forces threatening to invade Egypt. (Queerness in the Arab world is always framed as an external threat, corroding the infallible core of Arab morality from the outside in.) Video testimonials appear in which alleged concertgoers confirm a demonic orgy. Fake news is everywhere. Activists on the ground in Egypt keep asking us not to issue any statements for fear that this might inflame the situation. The arrests continue for weeks; the stories of torture are endless.
Sarah, in particular, was brutalized in a way few of us will ever understand. She embodied everything our societies are built to silence: a queer woman, a feminist, an activist and a communist who had renounced her hijab. She spoke out. And, for speaking, she was cruelly punished. Throughout her three months in detention, she was repeatedly electrocuted, beaten, sexually assaulted and tortured. She was ultimately released on bail and given political asylum in Canada. Three years later, on 13 June 2020, halfway into Pride month, Sarah died by suicide.
Many a queer Arab has lost lovers, chosen family, friends and comrades. But Sarah’s death cut differently. Grief swept through the queer community and the diaspora faster than the pandemic, and we took to doing what we’ve done for generations: we mourned.
Looking at who we mourn is one way of understanding who we are, and who belongs to this ‘we’, as Judith Butler argues in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004). In war, we never mourn the countless deaths of our enemies. We mourn our own. The lines drawn in the sand between ourselves and the other are the same lines that divide our cemeteries and turn them into battlefields for our identities. Those of us who publicly mourned Hegazy’s loss quickly received death threats; others were shamed for grieving, chastised with Qur’anic verses and reminders that god will send us to hell. Others were bullied by online mobs with cruel prayers that her mourners follow her or that god show no mercy to their souls. We are being told who we are by being told who we are not allowed to mourn. While the battle over mournability persists, dozens of protests and vigils honouring Hegazy’s memory are taking place all over the world. Back in Cairo, an anonymous collective started a WordPress blog called ‘Queers who Can’t Grief [sic] in Public’. The blog’s description in Arabic reads:
‘This space belongs to us, queer voices trying to reach each other and the rest of the world […] deviants who do not have the luxury of adding a temporary filter to our profile pictures for fear of compromising the mandatory invisibility that keeps us alive […] We are not even allowed to find each other to say that everything is going to be alright, that we are here to support, love and uphold each other, to cry and mourn and rage together. In spite of the entire world we will speak the words we’ve been swallowing in this space […] to give us and others like us the power to stand on our own feet and keep walking. Maybe it’ll remind us that we exist and will overcome our circumstances. Sarah is not just one name, or one case.’
In correspondence, one of the originators of the blog disclosed to me that they had never imagined it would ‘blow up the way it has’. They drafted the initial text out of frustration, then received a deluge of responses and submissions – more submissions, in fact, than they ‘can possibly upload in a month’. ‘It’s turning into a little army,’ the blog’s co-founder told me. ‘There is a power in how faceless and nameless this army is, and how raw everything is.’
Browsing the dozen or so posts from mourners in the Arab world, exploring and weaponizing their grief and desire, I recognize the same anonymity that, in the late 1990s, connected a group of non-heterosexuals on a secret Yahoo mailing thread called ‘Gay Lebanon’. The members of that thread, pioneers whose stories remain uncelebrated, would eventually decide to meet each other and would go on to found the region’s first LGBTQ+ activist network under the name of Club Free. I recognize the same anonymity that allowed me to find my own voice on Beirut’s walls 13 years ago. Anonymity is a liminal space of queer potentiality, between the invisibility we must bear to survive, and the visibility we need to live. It is where we find, heal and love each other as our ancestors have done for generations. While the world will not tell our stories, we must tell them ourselves, even behind closed doors. Outside, the writing is on the wall: we’re here. We’ve always been here. The queers will win the world.
Main Image: Mural of Sarah Hegazi in Amman (now painted over). Courtesy: © Wikimedia Commons