Habibi.ti, the revolutions of love : A talk with Khalid Abdel-Hadi

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Putting light on gender identity and sexuality’s emancipation and expression, Habibi.ti, the revolutions of love, held at Paris’ Institut Du Monde Arabe presents photographs, paintings, videos and performances of queer artists from the Arab World and its diasporas. Taking us on a journey of love, intimacy and freedom, it conveys personal narratives and stories, representing LGBTQIA+ identities. Khalid Abdel-Hadi the curator of the exhibition is also the founder of Jordan-born My Kali Magazine – the first LGBTQIA+ inclusive online magazine from the Middle East that addresses culture and politics in Southwest Asia, North Africa and its diasporas and gives a space to Queer Arabs to empower and document their experiences safely. We spoke to Abdel-Hadi to hear his insider’s point of view.

By Emma Breidi

© Alice Sidoli

Hello Khalid, can you tell me about the genesis of the exhibition, where did the idea come from ? What was the process to find the artists ?

Last year I was invited by the Arab World Institute to conduct a panel session about queer media with two other panelists. I talked a lot about queer art and using the internet as a space to convey it. I think it inspired something within the staff and they invited me back into their conversation.
With the two other curators Elodie Bouffard and Nada Madjou we each came with a list of artists from our own network that we wanted to involve in the exhibition and we discussed them, trying to connect the dots between their work to create the storyline of the exhibition. Some of them had exhibited exclusively in underground alternative spaces, so it was very interesting to bring all these elements to the table.

Do you think it is important to reclaim traditional cultural representations in order to challenge them and invent new stories and narratives ?

Some of the artists were reclaiming those representations but others were simply questioning them or conveying their own narratives. It is important to discuss these things from that perspective, as traditional culture and queerness in the MENA are not interlinked publicly, but considered as separated. People don’t see the links between both, so it was important to connect these stories and narratives to the original context of where each of the artists are coming from. But some others didn’t use nationalism or nationality as part of their conversation or art, just personal narrative, questioning certain aspects of what identity means to them. I think this exhibition is a collective way of questioning identity and where we position ourselves.

The exhibition shows how intimacy can be political, what is to you the link between both ?

The body is a very intimate element in our lives, the body of ourselves, our partners, our friends, I think the body in itself is a political element. Many people use it as part of their art, putting it and blasting it out there breaks the idea of intimacy. Your body is yours. As receptors we shouldn’t judge bodies or put them in cages, we should allow the artist to be without judging, questioning or comparing. 

A lot of events are organized by the Arab World Institute around the exhibition : performances, drag shows, round-table discussions, movie screenings, debates … And a “carte blanche” devoted to you, can you tell us about it ?

The event will be in March and will be inspired by the digital parties we hosted during Covid on zoom. We want to host in collaboration with the Arab World Institute a physical party with several live performances by queer artists, female DJs, and a lot of designs…

“The Divine Comedy” by Chaza Charafeddine

You’re the founder of My Kali Magazine, the longest-running queer magazine in the Middle East. Can you tell us about it and how it was born ?

It started as a personal project : journaling things I wanted to talk about as a queer person growing up in Jordan, to Palestinian, Bedouin, and Kurdish parents. When I started writing I wanted to publish in local publications but they were often rejecting me due to the fact that I was very young and queer. I connected all these rejected articles and I composed one PDF version that pushed for the publication to be the way it is right now.

It started from a very natural need of creating a queer digital space documenting these stories and it became a collective, a dynamic space between the online and the queer community in the region. It grew up from being in the borders of Amman, to the borders of Jordan, to abolishing borders altogether and becoming regional. Then it moved to exclusively being in English to Arabic, and to become a queer feminist intersectional publication that uses art as one of the main tools.

The magazine was published since its beginning in 2007 only in English, but since 2016 it is published also in Arabic. What motivated this decision ?

We had a hiccup in 2015. We collaborated and hosted an event on International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Jordan. We got a surprise visit from the american ambassador in Jordan, which eventually went viral with the whole propaganda of the west coming with gay agendas and imposing their culture. For me it was a wake up call that, ok, we’ve reached a place where we are not tackling the right issues, we are not serving the right people, we are not doing what we now need to start doing. We started questioning, did a lot of reflection, and we realized that a lot of our content was exclusively in English in order to protect the publication, but because of that it was dismissed in the media for not being in Arabic.

We needed to start speaking to the masses, to start serving our regional community, tackling those gender issues, sexuality, intersectionality and to solve all of those things, hit the mark and start from zero. It ended up having the publication blocked in Jordan, in Qatar etc. There was a backlash but it was the right decision, we needed to rip the band aid, khalas ! We can’t keep hiding behind the English language. We have a lot of queer content in Arabic, we need to start putting it out there.

Do you see any evolution in the representation of queer Arab communities ? And in My Kali Magazine ?

Absolutely. Starting with the terminology. The terminology has changed how people look at things, publicly and internally. In 2007 people didn’t really question toxic masculinity, we didn’t question being masculine, being feminine, or how being queer can be intersectional. We needed to talk about colonialism, we needed to deconstruct, reconstruct, realize all of those things that are part of the queer movement and narratives. Social media and its rise helped give more than one representation. Now there are so many types of Drag, so many types of queer people talking. All of those changes include the terminology created by the queer community.

Many artists that used to refuse to be featured in My Kali are now comfortable being featured because the publication has a nuance and a variety to it. It’s not labeled or titled. The publication changed a lot. It changed obviously with the language, but also the interface, the goals, the values, the way we are interacting with our audience.  We stopped commissioning and asking writers to write about specific topics : now we put it out there and people contribute if they want to. It brings fresh blood in the publication, people now feel like they contribute to something that is more of a collective, more a community based product instead of being the gatekeepers of something.

The latest digital issue of My Kali, My hair my hair, focuses on the role of hair (head and body) and our daily experiences with it, shaped by classism, heterosexism, ageism, patriarchy, and colonialism. What symbols and sociological aspects does hair carry ?

So many things … 
Hair is a powerful tool. Either you’re not hairy enough, you’re too hairy, you’re hairless, you’re losing your hair, you’re shaving, not shaving, wearing a wig … Talking about hair is a very vulnerable issue and it comes from a personal place. Some women burn themselves going to the lazer salon, trans women might feel like they want to shave to conform, but also question the idea of femininity. We have this image of the perfect hair, the one that you just brush and leave, that not all of us do have because ours might be too thick, too fine, etc. We featured an article about the adverts with Cindy Crawford with beautiful hair, and found a quote from her saying “even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford”. Companies and institutions benefit from our insecurities to sell products. Even governments when they arrest people shave their head as a form of humiliation and domination. 

So either we empower hair more, or we deconstruct it to the fact that we shouldn’t give power to these things, that it shouldn’t define us and that we should have a safe space to talk about it without having any stigmas around it. This issue is one of our densest, that’s why we dedicated three cover stories to it. Soon we’ll be able to feature the last cover story about an artist now booming who has an eczema issue, wears wigs and hats and uses social media to talk about it and highlight his condition.

What’s next for My Kali Magazine ?

The next issues will interact with sound and voices, and also with erotica, intimacy and pleasure. The question is the intimacy between the public space and the private space. What is intimate to us and how can we share this intimacy ? Why is it forbidden ? Why is it something that is absent from the public space ? What we think of as intimate is only within four walls and a bedroom. We think of pleasure only as a sexual aspect but it has much more levels to it. We’re doing more and more collaborations so the publication is growing naturally with platforms.

We collaborated for example with a digital queer turkish club called club CoWeed and a north african New York based collective called Yalla ! Party Project. We would also like to convey a bit of the material from the Habibi.ti exhibition within the publication to crossover from a physical public space to a more intimate community based publication. So far, in the region, people don’t know a lot about the exhibition. The next step would be to communicate that with our community back home. Then, maybe print ? A special edition ? Maybe more exhibitions, it will be great ! I think the Habibi.ti exhibition is just the start, I’m hoping this will have a ripple effect.

The exhibition Habibi.ti, the revolutions of love questions sexual and gender identities representation in the contemporary creation of artists from Arab cultures, as well as the aesthetic and socio-political strategies used to confront today’s societies. As expressing freely love, gender identity and sexuality remains a struggle in the world, Arab activist are now speaking out against the laws that criminalize homosexual acts, challenging conservatism and proposing societal alternatives.

Through this prism, the exhibition explores the concepts of individual emancipation, new ideals of identification, and the freedom of the body and to love as one so wishes. Curated by Elodie Bouffard, Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Nada Madjoub, these artist’s works combine intimacy and politics to question society as a whole and its norm through personal experiences.

Taking the spectator as a witness, they build bridges between history and privacy, discussing a panel of diverse topics from pleasure to self-celebration, in order to imagine alternative and inclusive futures in the Arab World.

©Alice Sidoli; Soufiane Ababri, Bed Work

In Soufiane Ababri’s “Bed Work”, sexuality is used as a power, a weapon to reverse the power shift of police brutality towards Moroccan living in France, by sexualizing and objectifying police officers. Through intimacy the artist exposes gendered, colonial and racist dominations and denounces their violence. Police brutality toward queer Arabs is also evoked in the work of illustrator Léa Djeziri who featured in a comic strip feminist and queer activist Rania Amdouni, arrested in post-revolutionary Tunisia and submitted to police brutality in prison.

© Alice SidoliLéa Djeziri, excerpt from SHIFT, ICI ET MAINTENANT

© Alice Sidoli Aïcha Snoussi, Sépulture aux noyé·e·s

As queer love was invisibilized in history, Aïcha Snoussi presents in Sépulture aux noyé·e·s (Memorial to the Drowned) a work inspired by archeology, imagining the vestiges of an ancient civilization of lovers buried off the Tunisian coast. This impressive piece shows how personal and intimate relationships are inscribed in history, places and time. The bottles in the sea displayed represent the corpses of those women lost in sea and their love letters, dreams, wishes, achievements, thrown in the sea for their loved ones to receive.

© Alice Sidoli Jeanne and Moreau

The duo Jeanne and Moreau take us into the privacy of their bedroom to show the intimacy of the two queer women. Inspired by the Beirut explosion following which they had to move from one house to another, they question the idea of the home, the intimate space and what constitutes it.
Photos and videos collected by them are projected on the bed as a window to  their life, and the spectator is invited to sit on the bed to go through their phone, looking into their personal lives. This poetic, vulnerable and intimate piece questions the idea of the private, the personal, and how it manifests itself in the intimate space and its supposed sense of security.

“I think the body in itself is a political element. Many people use it as part of their art, putting it and blasting it out there, it breaks the idea of intimacy.”

Omar Mismar, The Path of Love, 2013-2014, red neon installation and numeric impression

Omar Mismar’s work documents in a quasi-scientific way his dating experiences in the public space. “The path of love” is a map linking the places where he was meeting his dates from dating apps. Connecting those dots, it traces his route to meet lovers, creating a map of quest for love, and tackling the conditions and possibilities offered by cities to experience queer love. He captured those places in pictures gathered in a journal called “The man who waited for a kiss”, carrying the contradiction of nostalgia and loneliness in relationships. Showing the vulnerability of romance and sexuality interacting with public space, the journal can be taken back home by the viewer, to their own intimacy.

© Alice Sidoli Raed Ibrahim, For Every Ailment There is a Remedy

Raed Ibrahim’s project For Every Ailment There is a Remedy proposes remedies to cure “social diseases”. It tackles topics that constitute tensions in Arab societies, questioning their norms and the global consumer system. In this piece, Ibrahim presents a suppository to cure homosexuality using pharmaceutical format. Ironic and sarcastic, this piece uses humor as a weapon against homophobia. This work was displayed only once before in 2009 in Jordan in an underground exhibition.

© Alice Sidoli Sido Lansari, Sissy That Walk, Papa suce et maman coud

Moroccan artist Sido Lansari plays with queer discourse and language in Sissy That Walk, with embroideries of Arabic subtitles from the programme Rupaul’s Drag Race.The programme is accessible in various Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, where homosexuality is illegal. Highlighting the absurdity of literal translations of cult phrases, the artist shows the lack of queer lexic in Arabic. In the serie Papa suce et maman coud, the artists parodies and subverts homophobic slogans from the “Manif pour tous”, the movement against samesex marriage that took place in France in 2013.

© Alice Sidoli

Visit Habibi.ti at the Institut Du Monde Arabe in Paris until March 19th