Tunisia has done it again. It has sprung surprises in the past and continues to do so now – from toppling the Ben Ali regime during the Arab Spring, to infecting the Middle East with the spirit of rebellion, to women waging a successful battle to win equal inheritance rights, and to the creation in 2017 of Shams Rad, the first LGBTQ online radio station of its kind in the Arab world. This list also includes the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival – yet another first in the Arab world.
For two years now the Mawjoudin (“We Exist”) organization – an activist nonprofit group that was established in 2014 but only legalized the following year – has been holding the festival, one of the most controversial events in the entire Arab world.
The third annual event was slated to take place this weekend, but as with other events around the world, which are being cancelled amid the spread of coronavirus, the festival organizers announced plans to postpone it until late May.
The first festival in 2018 took place in a secret location in the capital, Tunis. A handful of people who were trusted by Mawjoudin knew where and when it was taking place. The Tunisian authorities did not approve the holding of the event and even told organizers they could not provide security for it. In this way, they not only absolved themselves of any responsibility for the safety of the participants, but also in essence for ensuring the safety of the entire local gay community.
The Mawjoudin festivals feature a wide variety of films from the Arab world and Africa. Clearly, the nonprofit group took on a complex mission, a challenging and even dangerous one. Their website says that the aim of the event is to showcase content and issues concerning the entire LGBTQ community, to bring to the forefront voices and groups that are usually silenced, and to provide space for a dialogue on the attitudes of Arab-Islamic society to diverse sexual identities, sexual harassment and more.
Last year's festival, held in downtown Tunis, featured 31 short and full-length films – including director Roy Dib’s “The Beach House,” “Sisak” by Faraz Arif Ansari, and “Marco,” directed by Saleem Haddad – all of them dealing with non-mainstream themes such as gender identity, feminism and non-heteronormative sexuality, as well as sexual violence. There were also workshops, lectures, plays and concerts, but the jewel in the crown at the Mawjoudin festival was its screen-writing workshop, aimed at fostering queer art in the public domain.
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The genesis of the festival was preceded, as mentioned, by that of Tunisia's online radio station Shams Rad, which has followers and listeners in 16 countries. Its founding, in the country that brought the Arab Spring to the doorstep of several Arab countries, was not well received, to say the least. The entrepreneurs behind it and the station's management were the target of thousands of calls from people who threatened their lives if they continued to act on behalf of society's so-called deviants.
It’s no wonder, of course, that this was the dominant reaction to the creation of the gay radio station. The social-political arena in Tunisia and in the region is rife with contradictory forces and streams – progressive vs. traditional and religious vs. secular – which frequently clash.
Along with the emerging social-political feminist and liberal conversation there is also a lively Islamic religious discourse, expressed not just on the street but in parliament as well, in the form of the Ennahda party, which describes itself as "Muslim democratic."
Undoubtedly, the attitudes of the political-Islamist establishment regarding non-mainstream identities and sexual preferences – as well as the reactions toward the LGBTQ community’s artistic activities – derive from the Koran and, more precisely, from their interpretation as reflected in the Sunnah al-Nabawiyah, the oral law attributed to the prophet Mohammed.
According to this law, persons with a homosexual orientation should be punished. While the Koran itself contains no direct mention of this subject, there is an indirect reference to homosexual relations between men. There is only one sura (chapter) which calls this act a sin.
There is a debate among Muslim scholars regarding the nature of this sin. Some believe it is not deemed as such because of a homosexual act per se, but rather because of the heretical denial of the existence of one god. The Koran also doesn’t mention any specific penalties for this act.
The subject is mentioned in one place, where Mohammed is quoted as saying that if two people are found guilty of the sin of Lot (the prophet who was associated with the debauched and sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah) – both should be put to death.
The belief in this precept ultimately sealed the fate of members of a huge community, finding its way into the laws and justice system of the Tunisian state, among others. Based on it, sexual contact between people of the same gender was defined as a criminal act, carrying a penalty of three years in prison.
In light of this, it is quite astonishing that discourse in the Islamic world today has not managed to stifle, silence or destroy the revolutionary cultural trends afoot in Tunisia, the Arab world and other Muslim-majority countries.
There are numerous political and other theoretical explanations for the complexity of the cultural scene that's been emerging recently in Tunisia, including the country's liberal constitution that’s been in place since 1956, a strong civil society, women’s organizations with increasing influence, and a liberal left with a clear social-justice agenda – one of the most veteran of such groups in the Arab world.
These explanations are all well and good, but to my mind, what enables this expanding cultural scene is the lively, throbbing Tunisian street, which is dealing with and struggling against a host of complex phenomena. Above all this is the invincible Tunisian spirit.
Only someone who’s visited Tunisia can understand what I mean. I was lucky to visit the country in 2015. One day I took a shuttle from my hotel to Habib Bourguiba Street. A long-haired man with a guitar also got onto the bus and began to sing one of the revolutionary songs (“Build Your Castles") of the late Egyptian composer-singer Imam Mohammad Ahmad Eissa, aka Sheikh Imam. And then something amazing happened, which I’ll never forget.
At first, the guitar player was joined by a girl wearing a head covering, and then by two other teenagers, and gradually, everyone on the bus joined in, as if it had been planned. Everyone sang along without fear, spontaneously, moving together, blending into one voice. All the passengers' identities, opinions and associations were meaningless in the face of a very human event, and the momentary cultural link between them became the most important thing.
That incident demonstrated in the simplest and most human way that an artistic-cultural conversation will find opportunities to evade and bypass the laws of the Divine and his messengers, becoming a powerful and sincere force, alive in the streets. It was proof that art resides in people’s souls.