When asked to write a preface for this themed issue, “Decolonizing Sex and Sexuality,” I thought right away of the Moroccan writer, thinker, and sociologist Abdelkebir Khatibi (1983, 47), who in Maghreb pluriel (Plural Maghreb) argued for “a decolonization that would be, at the same time, a deconstruction.” Khatibi explains that the notion of deconstruction is borrowed “from Jacques Derrida, to the extent that 1) his thinking is also in dialogue with the ‘overtaking of metaphysics’; . . . 2) deconstruction, as a shaking up of Western metaphysics and as carried out by Derrida in his own unique way, accompanied decolonization as a historical phenomenon” (47–48n1). He then assigns a specifically Arab valence to deconstruction: “Like all sociology of decolonization, the one coming out of the Arab world consists in carrying out a deconstruction of logocentrism and of ethnocentrism, that word of self-sufficiency par excellence by which the West, by developing itself, developed the world” (48). In dialogue with Khatibi, Derrida (1998) developed one of his signature concepts in The Monolingualism of the Other. In this work and in others—like Glas (Derrida 1986) and “Circumfessions” (Derrida 1993)—Derrida increasingly returned to his own Algerian roots. Moreover, when one considers that Derrida theorized his early deconstruction of origins through readings of the Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès in Writing and Difference, deconstruction is likely to have been African all along (Derrida 1978a, 1978b).1
The common de- in deconstruction and decolonization appears at the beginning of my title, which slightly reworks a verse in Deee-Lite’s 1990 single “Groove Is in the Heart.” This song was popular as I began to work on my dissertation (Hayes 1996), which would become my first book-length intervention in queer Maghribi studies (Hayes 2000). After the 1991 strikes on a number of campuses of the City University of New York, members of the original strike committee were elected to a majority of the Doctoral Students’ Council of the Graduate School and University Center, where I was attending graduate school. As I moved into the leadership of this group, one of our less activist tasks was organizing monthly socials with snacks and dancing. Anyone in attendance could bring mix tapes (yes, there were still cassettes back then!). Mine was identified with the label “Fag Music,” and the aforementioned Deee-Lite number was always one of its most popular songs. It inspired many fabulous moves on the dance floor, none of them compatible with heterosexual masculinity. I misremembered the last word in the song title as move rather than heart and retain move here because, if heart suggests an inner being or essence, move was more compatible with not only our dance moves at those socials but also the political movement that led to our strengthened position as students when it came to confronting administrative attempts to raise our tuition. I thus use that Deee-Lite song to evoke a moment I connect to the decolonizing moves well represented by the three articles as well as a number of essays, reviews, and other pieces presented under this issue’s special theme.
The dance moves mentioned were not the only “groovy” moves happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This period witnessed an explosion of queer studies, beginning with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (1990) Epistemology of the Closet and Judith Butler’s (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. A year later Diana Fuss (1991) published her collection Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, the journal differences released a special issue titled “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities” (de Lauretis 1991), and the collective Bad Object-Choices (1991) published How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video. These were exciting times, and the relation between deconstruction and queer theory was immediately clear. By the time I began working on my dissertation, in part inspired by Nationalisms and Sexualities (Parker et al. 1992), the heyday of queer theory was still in the present, and one could say the same about postcolonial theory. By the mid-1990s subsets of queer postcolonial studies were beginning to emerge (Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan 2002; Luibhéid and Cantú 2005; Patton and Sánchez-Eppler 2000).
These developments coincided with the arrival on the literary scene of Francophone Maghribi writers who openly proclaimed their same-sex desires and sexual histories, beginning with the Moroccan Rachid O. (1995) and the Franco-Tunisian Eyet-Chékib Djaziri (1997).2 Like writers who would follow them, these novelists were also on the move, especially in often working from France instead of their country of origin. Earlier in the 1990s a handful of scholars began to take the prominence of representations of homoerotic desire in Maghribi literature more seriously, particularly in conference papers (Canadé Sautman 1994; Long 1993; Zimra 1992). Maghribi studies more generally was quick to take stock of these developments. Winifred Woodhull (1993, 199) brought Butler’s Gender Trouble to bear on the work of Khatibi, who, she argues, “celebrate[s] femininity’s intractable difference while simultaneously assuming the immutability of the symbolic order that attempts to silence it” (see also xx–xxii, 199–200). In the same year I published Queer Nations, the Franco-Algerian Nina Bouraoui (2000) and the Moroccan Abdellah Taïa (2000) would follow Rachid O. and Djaziri in the open expression of same-sex desires in their writings.3 Other scholarly queer work in Maghribi studies followed. After the publication of French translations of Gender Trouble (Butler 2005) and Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick 2008), and once French scholars finally began to take notice of US queer theory, such work increasingly appeared in French. Suffice it to say that the first decade of the twenty-first century quickly became the decade of queer Maghribi studies. Recent capstones are the publications of Mehammed Amadeus Mack’s (2017) Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture and Denis M. Provencher’s (2017) Queer Maghrebi French: Language, Temporalities, Transfigurations.
Throughout this same period, queer Maghribi studies has also been in dialogue with queer Middle East studies. The earliest works, Arno Schmitt and Jehoeda Sofer’s (1992) Sexuality and Eroticism among Males in Moslem Societies and Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe’s (1997) Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, were accused of being Orientalist, and the first even of being racist.4 Twenty-first-century studies include Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800 (El-Rouayheb 2005), the groundbreaking Desiring Arabs (Massad 2007), Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire (Babayan and Najmabadi 2008), Crossing Borders: Love between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures (Amer 2008), the ethnography Queer Beirut (Merabet 2014), Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Najmabadi 2014), and the encyclopedic Homoerotics of Orientalism (Boone 2014).5 The second decade of this century witnessed the publication of three special journal issues devoted to queer Middle East studies. JMEWS published two of them: “Middle East Sexualities,” edited by Lara Deeb and Dina Al-Kassim (2011), and “Queering Middle Eastern Cyberscapes,” edited by Adi Kuntsman and Noor Al-Qasimi (2012). The International Journal of Middle East Studies published “Queer Affects,” edited by Hanadi Al-Samman and Tarek El-Ariss (2013).
I have argued for a much more intensive dialogue between queer Middle East studies and queer Maghribi studies (Hayes 2016a, 2016b), a conversation to which this thematic issue contributes. Although Sahar Amer did queer scholarship in French and Arabic, a recent tendency in French departments is to hire jointly with Arabic programs and to have language requirements that are less Eurocentric, making it easier for French graduate students to use Arabic as one of their languages. This option was almost impossible in my graduate program in the 1990s, but the recent shift will increase possibilities for more comparatively queer work between French, Arabic, and other languages of the region.
Ghada Mourad’s “‘Let’s Take a Leap’: Decolonizing Modernity, Double Critique, and Sexuality in Mohamed Leftah’s Le Dernier Combat du Captain Niʿmat,” published in this issue, analyzes a novel by the Moroccan writer Leftah. In so doing, Mourad engages heavily with the same collection of essays by Khatibi that I mention above. Given my discussion of the links between queer theory and deconstruction, we may conclude that Khatibi’s theorization of decolonization as deconstruction was queer from the very beginning. Some of us might partly disapprove of Khatibi’s particular version of queering (as Woodhull does in the passage quoted above), but it would be hard to deny that his “coupling” of decolonization with an insistence on sexual diversity prefigures queer postcolonial theory by almost a decade. Moreover, years ago Khatibi (1983, 150) called for the kind of work that Massad undertook in 2007: “To speak of ‘sexuality’ in Islam is to carry out, first of all, a translation from one language to another, from one civilization to another.” All three essays herein make groovy moves that allow us to consider further Khatibi’s triple nexus among queerness, decolonization, and deconstruction.
The key Khatibi concepts with which Mourad engages are “pensée-autre” and the “double critique directed at both Islamic and Western traditions and foundations, a kind of ‘de-constitution of knowledge’ modeled on Derridian deconstruction and Foucauldian archaeological methods.” Until I read Mourad’s essay, however, I had never considered the queer possibilities of Khatibi’s “double critique.” In work I did with Margaret R. Higonnet and William J. Spurlin in Comparatively Queer: Interrogating Identities across Time and Cultures (Hayes et al. 2010), we theorized the importance of comparative approaches to queer studies, which we characterized as a “double crossing” and playfully called “going both ways,” with all its sexual implications. The eponymous protagonist of Mourad’s primary literary text does indeed go both ways, which the novel describes in the most exquisitely explicit detail. As such, Leftah’s novel is a recent addition to a corpus of representations of same-sex desire by Maghribi writers who do not necessarily openly identify as engaging in such desire (a corpus that, to be honest, has tended to interest me more than the more “open” writers listed above).
Like Massad (2007, 181–87), Leftah (2011, 99) includes an extensive consideration of the Queen Boat incident in Egypt in this novel. This passage also includes the second and third deployments of the word homosexuality. The first is in a description of the transformations Captain Niʿmat undergoes while coming to terms with his newfound love and desires. In all three deployments, homosexuality is more something that might cause a problem for Niʿmat than something he might want to identity himself with. For example, Niʿmat uses the verb assumer (to own up to) along the lines Provencher (2007) details in his earlier study in theorizing even a French resistance to the Anglo-American notion of coming out. Niʿmat uses assumer to define himself in opposition to coming out. Homosexuality is not what he will lay claim to, even as he comes to terms with his passionate desire for another man. In another example of the novel’s resistance to the homo/hetero binary, as the sexual contact with his servant Islam begins, Niʿmat asks Islam to massage him and, at the end, to finger his ass. When Islam, shocked, voices his dismay to his uncle Samir, the latter responds by suggesting that being fingered by another man is no cause for concern, since Niʿmat must have an aging prostate (Leftah 2011, 99). When Mourad describes such aspects of the novel as belonging to an “anachronistic gender typology,” I also like to think of the implications of a queer temporality, or what Sedgwick (1990, 47) referred to when she argued that “issues of modern homo/heterosexual definition are structured, not by the supersession of one model and the consequent withering away of another, but instead by the relations enabled by the unrationalized coexistence of different models during the times they do coexist.” In other words, this is precisely the kind of uneasy relation between sexuality and MSM desire and “sexual” acts in Arab cultures as described by Massad (2007). Mourad characterizes the resulting disruptions as fitna and takes the unusual step of associating fitna with the male character Islam.
Mourad does not mention Massad’s work, and neither does Indira Falk Gesink in her article in this issue, “Intersex Bodies in Premodern Islamic Discourse: Complicating the Binary.” This observation is not a reproach but a call to deepen conversations in all directions between Maghribi and Arab queer studies and between sexuality scholars across disciplines examining different historical moments and sites and relying on various source languages, texts, and methods. If Khatibi’s discussion of the centrality of deconstruction to decolonization highlights the deconstruction of Western ethnocentrism, the articles as well as a number of other interventions in this issue carry out the work of denaturalization necessary for such deconstruction in their analyses, media, and geocultural and historical foci. Although Mourad focuses on “decolonizing modernity,” we might also say that, through Leftah, she deconstructs the Western hetero/homo binary on which sexuality, that modern construct par excellence, relies.
The Khatibi collection Mourad engages includes the essay “Sexuality according to the Qurʾan” (Khatibi 1983, 147–76), which connects to Gesink’s essay, an examination of Islamic legal and medical texts. Gesink takes on not the binary that defines “modern” sexuality but the one that defines sex in the “modern” world: male/female. If the feminist embryologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) proposes that there are not two sexes but five, Gesink challenges firm sex and gender categorizations in Islamic history. She argues that “while twentieth- and twenty-first-century Islamic discourse employs the rhetoric of a true binary sex, projecting that argument into the past is anachronistic.” Challenging the work of the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba and Paula Sanders, Gesink’s wonderfully detailed historicization of “intersex” does the denaturalizing work required to decolonize and deconstruct sex as defined by the male/female binary:
Prior to the nineteenth century, Muslim intellectuals recognized the khuntha as a legal sex. Furthermore, while reflecting and to some degree reproducing gender hierarchy, experts’ discussions of intersex do not seem to have been primarily motivated by a desire to protect men. It is clear, however, that something changed in the twentieth century as scholars became ideologically resistant to the possibility that Muslim societies tolerated degrees of deviance from binary sex.
In short, “maleness apparently did not require a functioning penis” in the history she reconstructs.
Shaherzad R. Ahmadi’s article, “‘In My Eyes He Was a Man’: Poor and Working-Class Boy Soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War,” might seem an outlier, since its detailed and historicized account of boy soldiers in Iran is less directly connected to sex or sexuality. Yet the intervention offers a counterhegemonic reading of boys’ participation in war that attends to class, gender, and childhood in Iran and does not overplay Islamic piety as a motivation. The article forces us to historicize the way we conceive of the modern male subject or individual before the law and the way “majority” itself (in the sense of no longer being a minor or “underage” when it comes to giving legal consent) is constructed, especially in relation to class. The question of sexual consent has been a much-discussed topic in the US media and political discourse, and in the narrative of boys becoming men, sex is what supposedly remains consistent as an adult gender comes to be embodied. While “desiring” Arabs or Iranians in the way we think of them in queer theory is not Ahmadi’s main concern, desires are clearly at play, and the intellectual decolonization she carries out is in line with Mourad’s and Gesink’s interventions. In Queer Nations I wrote, “‘We’ do not have a monopoly on queering; through our readings of Maghrebian novels, ‘we’ might also, in turn, be queered by them” (Hayes 2000, 20). These articles and other interventions in the themed issue demonstrate that this statement is not unique to the Maghrib or to literature. Such queering intellectual moves should be integral to the decolonization of Middle East studies. And what “groovy” moves they are!
For a more extensive reading of the queer relation between deconstruction and Derrida’s Algerian roots, see Hayes 2017.
On Schmitt and Sofer, see Hayes 1993, 155–56, 178n2; 2001, 85–91; Massad 2002, 366–70; 2003; 2007, 165–71; Schmitt 2003. On Murray and Roscoe, see Hayes 2001, 83–91; Massad 2002, 370–71; 2003; 2007, 170–71.