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Pressed to Express

Date Published: 

BY MEEM, 2009</i></b>

Bareed Mista3jil—roughly translated as “Express Mail”—is the perfect name for this collection of 41 personal stories by “lesbians, bisexuals, queer and questioning women, and transgender persons from all over Lebanon.” I waited by the door for my copy to reach me, with its urgent evidence and affirmation of affectionately-dubbed “Lesbanese” lives in process.

The collection is as groundbreaking in its process as in its subject matter. Taking seriously the task of breaking a dominant silence in Lebanon, the LBTQ group Meem (founded in 2007) operated with hopscotch precision, making a road to walk with rapid, successive leaps of faith. The creators of Bareed take a culturally specific and accountable approach, buying into neither the story that queer sexualities are imported from the West, nor the narrative about the progression of the backwards East into the enlightened Western embrace of sexual diversity. Meem also challenges the value placed on emigration by emphasizing the desire and right to find community and safety at home. They share this stance in common with Aswat, a Palestinian LGBTQI group that has published two anthologies of their own [see Reviews, LT #32].

The stories here are published anonymously. While many echo a wider discourse about struggling with relationships, identity and acceptance, the editors place these stories in their specific context. “Lebanese family norms are especially important because people rely on them for all kinds of services and support, mostly due to the absence of the public sector, which makes it even harder for Lebanese to distance themselves from their families or risk rejection.” The editors’ approach combats stereotypes of irrational tradition by reminding the reader of the practical economic concerns that make challenging family norms a very risky thing to do.

While this collection has lessons to teach a North American reader (challenging their own narrow views of the world), the book was not made to export Lebanese stories westward. It was produced in order to create and affirm and transform a Lebanese community to which the editors remain committed and accountable. Releasing the book in both Arabic and English versions, Meem was intentional in its choices about navigating language—mixing classical Arabic, regional dialects, and slang internal to their communities, and with many things immediately translated. They chose to create the text in multiple languages to reach a wider audience, within their targets of heterosexual and homophobic Lebanese as well as Lebanese young people who are questioning sexual norms.
The struggle with choosing language(s) strikes me as a poetic struggle. No normative language is rich enough to describe the culturally nuanced and experimental relationship to sexuality Meem is documenting and experiencing. Like so many of us who are committed to radical transformation, they struggle to make the concepts they are passionate about understandable to the people they want to be in conversation with. By refusing to give up on this task, Meem contributes to the production of new visionary language for expression and exploration.

Recognizing that the stories’ various themes are interconnected, Meem chose not to divide them into sections. Instead, with a shout-out to the importance of online community, Meem chose to tag the pieces like blog entries, highlighting which 2 or 4 or 11 themes are addressed in each story. While this makes it harder to find specific stories to use for a syllabus or workshop, it also keeps the reader from pigeonholing them. Instead, we’re encouraged to see them all as part of a multiple and evolving story—with episodes as varied as “My Forgotten Penis,” “The Hunt for a Gay Husband,” and “That One Love that Breaks You.”

In “The Motorcycle Gender,” the author describes how her use of a motorcycle allows her access to a certain type of masculine mystique—while her parents use their disapproval of her motorcycling to express their deeper disdain for her transgression of gender norms. She refuses to shape her thick eyebrows or shave her armpits—a major problem for her family—it makes her feel “nonconformist and sexy.” Unfortunately, “in a blink of a second all that can disappear. I can get into an elevator with women with high heels and botox and, suddenly, I can feel like shit again.”

<b>Creating community</b>

“My Hijab and I” tells the story of a woman who is committed to wearing hijab, but struggles with the fact that it seems to make her “dykeness” invisible to women she is trying to attract. She ultimately affirms her choice to keep wearing hijab as she moves and grooves—she feels that it keeps women from objectifying her, and keeps people focused on what she has to say, which is a lot!

Not all of the stories have happy endings in which the speaker emerges from a closet with identity and self-esteem intact. Some of the stories end with questions. Some end in despair and frustration. And while the introduction is very intentional, critical and self-critical, the stories are not so careful—the tellers are free to speak their personal truths and opinions. We understand that speaking for themselves is enough of a victory, without the burden of having to speak for everyone whose sexual and gendered lives challenge the norm.

Though not every storyteller has found the nurturing community they want or need, this book is able to exist only due to the community created by the members of Meem—along with their comrades in the LGBT organization Helem (founded in 2004). On February 22 of this year, Helem led their first public sit-in in Beirut, with 200 people protesting violence against “homosexuals, women, children, domestic and foreign workers, and others.” On May 30, 400 people attended Meem’s Beirut launch event for Bareed Mista3jil.

This book is poetic evidence of a group of people finding language and space for the expression of their complicated journeys to love themselves and the people around them. Mail a copy to someone you love today.

<i>—Alexis Pauline Gumbs</i>