The first issue of the Jordanian-based online gay magazine My.Kali to appear fully in Arabic came out in May, more than eight years after publication in English began.
“Throughout the years, many readers have asked us to publish in Arabic, commenting that as one of the first LGBT+ publications in the [Middle East and North Africa] region, the magazine’s language didn’t reflect the geography it represented nor was it fair for Arabic speakers who couldn’t read our content,” said My.Kali founder Khalid Abdel-Hadi in a statement to Gay Star News. He was using initials standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other sexual and gender minorities.
The issue features separate Arabic and English covers, each with a different photograph of Yara Kakish, the martial arts who is redefining what it means to be a Jordanian woman. But some of the articles do not appear in both versions. An English-only piece asks, “What have we been missing out on when it comes to online dating?”
The Arabic edition has a report on a married Jordanian cleric who fled the country and faces death threats because he is gay, and a piece about human-rights activists in the region.
There’s also an interesting piece by the young Iraqi writer and artist Musa al-Shadidi, who bravely but cautiously revisits the question of whether the revered Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum was a lesbian.
My.Kali goes beyond LGBT issues, with articles about alternative culture, pop culture in the Arab world and women’s rights. There are interviews with artists and others who are supportive of the LGBT community, together with prominent members of that community.
The magazine’s success must be credited to Abdel-Hadi. Despite the numerous times he has been interviewed in the international press, not much has been revealed about his personal life. But he too is ready to serve as a personal example, to appear openly, and has also been photographed for the magazine’s cover. The magazine is actually named for him (His nickname is Kali).
Prejudices run in both directions
Abdel-Hadi came up with the idea for the magazine when he was just 18 and still in the closet. He and other university students banded together with the aim of creating a publication whose goals were battling homophobia, advocating for the legalization of gay sex, the legal recognition of transgender individuals and the empowerment for LGBT youth in the Middle East and North Africa.
But wait just a minute! What’s going on here? Aren’t trans people being stoned in the Middle East, gays being dropped from roofs and lesbians forced to have their tubes tied? After all, isn’t this the fundamentalist-fanatic-Arab-Muslim world that oppresses women and persecutes minorities and kills LGBT folks for breakfast?
Just two months ago, Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the only gay magazine in Bangladesh, was brutally murdered by Islamist militants. And Bangladesh and Jordan, you know, they’re the same thing. They’re both Muslim. And here I am acting like one of those pie-in-the-sky leftists, writing about an LGBT magazine that comes out in Arabic in Jordan, as if before you know it we’ll surely see Islamic State tanks rolling through the Iraqi desert waving rainbow flags. Hey, not to worry, before I get carried away here I’ll make sure to describe the horrors that we know and imagine. So — yes, in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Egypt, gays are arrested on trumped-up charges, for alleged membership in a certain cult, and in Syria and Iraq there have been cases of gays being shot in the street.
‘Colonialism in queer theory’
So how is it possible that in such “awful” places, LGBT activity still exists? In fact, LGBT people in the Arab world have to contend not just with the conservative forces and homophobia at home but with the Islamophobia and Arab-phobia from outside. They must contend with the prejudices and stereotypes about them in the Arab world, as well as with the Western stereotype of Arab queers as primitive, voiceless victims.
Added to that, says Abdel-Hadi, is a strong sense of Western cultural imperialism felt in Jordan.
“There’s colonialism in queer theory, and we need to think about whether [LGBT identity] is just another idea from the West imposed on the Arab community, and consider if we have ever had or are able to have forms of identity that are uniquely Arab. We’re looking back through history and trying to develop something in the present,” he said in an interview to Vice.com’s i-D.
The reality, it seems, is not so black-and-white. A few days before the magazine’s new edition came out, a concert by Mashrou’ Leila in Amman was canceled. The Lebanese alternative rock band had performed in the Jordanian capital more than once in the past, but conservatives tried to block it due to its controversial material about same-sex love.
Meanwhile, it turns out that gay sex has been legal in Jordan since 1951. Just for comparison, as Edward Siddons noted when he interviewed Abdel-Hadi for i-D magazine, homosexuality was still banned in “enlightened and progressive” Britain until 1982.