The status of queer literature in the Maghreb and the Arab world is complex and nuanced as it varies by country and region. While there’s been an increase in openly LGBTQ+ writers and themes being explored in some places, homosexuality remains illegal in many Arab and Muslim countries, leaving LGBTQ+ individuals vulnerable to persecution and discrimination. Despite these challenges, there are writers and readers who are passionate about exploring queer identities through literature as a means of promoting greater representation and acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.
However, North African queer literature has been historically underrepresented in academic circles focused on queer theory and literature. To address this gap, this list offers suggestions for theoretical and literary works that explore themes of queerness, identity, and resistance within the context of North Africa and the Maghreb. By presenting a unique perspective on queerness within these societies and cultures, this list provides valuable insights into global literature on gender and sexuality while highlighting the vital contributions of queer writers from North Africa.
Understanding Gender and Sexuality Beyond Western Beliefs
Will Stockton, “DISCOURSE: Discourse and the History of Sexuality,” in Clinical Encounters in Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory, ed. Noreen Giffney and Eve Watson (Punctum Books, 2017), 171–94.
French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault challenged traditional Western views by arguing that sexuality isn’t an innate aspect of human nature but rather a product of historical and cultural processes. He maintained that modern Western societies placed a great deal of importance on sexuality as a means of social control, using it to regulate behavior and maintain power relationships between different groups in society. In this chapter, Will Stockton critiques Foucault’s method of historicizing sexuality and proposes that psychoanalysis provides a more nuanced understanding of the connection between sex and discourse. Stockton explores the turn of queer studies toward what hasn’t yet entered the historical records, toward what’s culturally illegible but encountered in embodied, nonrational forms. This turn resonates with psychoanalytic historiography and the study of the way the past inserts itself in the present, often in the form of a demand. Stockton argues that this approach offers a valuable perspective on the ways in which queer studies can challenge conventional historiographic models and expand our understanding of queerness beyond Western views.
David M. Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?” History and Theory 28, no. 3 (1989): 257–74.
A theorist in the fields of gender studies, queer theory, and critical theory, David M. Halperin questions contemporary beliefs about sexuality and emphasizes its historicity. He uses classical antiquity as a case study to argue against the idea of sexuality as an inherent essence located within an individual. Instead, he suggests, sex was used to establish social hierarchies rather than to express internal dispositions or inclinations. Halperin’s viewpoint challenges modern interpretations of sexuality that consider it an independent domain and support the creation of individual sexual identities. He also proposes a new historical sociology of psychology that examines the cultural poetics of desire and acknowledges the intricate and arbitrary processes that shape personal life. By shifting the focus away from sexuality as a crucial aspect of cultural interpretation, this perspective offers a means of globalizing the queer canon and expanding our comprehension of sexuality beyond Western, modern, and individualistic assumptions.
Judith Butler. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519–31.
In her book Gender Trouble (1990), philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler argues that gender and sexuality aren’t innate; rather, they’re constructed through social and cultural practices. She maintains that gender is a performance rather than an essence, meaning that individuals perform their gender through their actions and behaviors, which are shaped by social norms and expectations. Butler’s work on sexuality critiques binary categories of sexual orientation and posits a more fluid and open conception of desire that recognizes contextual variation. Her ideas have broad implications for feminist and queer theory, challenging traditional notions of gender and sexuality.
In this article, Butler provides the readers with a groundbreaking exploration of the relationship between performative acts and gender constitution, drawing on phenomenological and feminist theories. She argues that gender isn’t a stable identity, but a tenuously constituted identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. She challenges the traditional binary view of gender and posits that gender is a fluid and constantly performative identity. The article also critiques feminist theory that relies on an essentialist view of gender and instead calls for a politics of performative gender acts that recognizes the complexity of gender and avoids reifying gender identities. This is a must-read for anyone interested in global queer theory, gender studies, and feminist theory, as Butler offers a new perspective on gender and sexuality that challenges conventional (Western) notions of identity and expands the possibilities for understanding the intricacies of the human experience.
Contextualizing Arab and Muslim Sexuality within the Arab World
Rachel Bailey Jones and Shawgi Tell. “Chapter 9: Sexuality in the Arab World: Complexity and Contradiction,” Counterpoints 355 (2010): 131–43.
Jones and Tell provide a nuanced and insightful analysis of the ways in which cultural norms, beliefs, and Western media images shape sexuality and gender identity in different Arab countries. They draw on examples from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen to illustrate the diversity of experiences and attitudes in the region. They also highlight the importance of acknowledging the limited and tentative nature of the project and the complexity of identity in the Arab world. They emphasize that these observations shouldn’t be used to validate the self-righteous criticism of Islam and Arabs by conservatives in the West. This article is an essential read for anyone seeking to contextualize Arab sexuality and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, social, and political factors that shape it.
Abdessamad Dialmy and Allon J. Uhlmann, “Sexuality in Contemporary Arab Society,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 49, no. 2 (2005): 16–33.
Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy collaborates with Australian anthropologist Allon J. Uhlmann to provide a comprehensive analysis of sexuality in contemporary Arab society. Dialmy and Uhlmann discuss the traditional binary and hierarchical view of sexual order, recent developments in social frameworks for a new Arab sexuality, and social-sexual issues such as honor killings, impotence and Viagra use, and sex-education programs aimed at preventing HIV/AIDS. The authors highlight challenges facing research into the topic in the Arab Islamic world, including the dominating and hierarchical nature of sexual relations that can lead to coercive sexual conduct. They also discuss the difficulties of implementing effective sex education and preventive measures in the region. Overall, they provide valuable insights into the complexities of Arab sexuality and advocate for an Arab sexual democracy that moves sexuality from a religious order to a civil order while retaining religious values.
As’ad AbuKhalil “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization,” The Arab Studies Journal 1, no. 2 (1993): 32–48.
Political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil presents a historically informed perspective on queerness in the Arab world, challenging the notion that homosexuality is solely a Western import. He explores complex attitudes towards same-sex relationships in pre-modern Islamic societies and argues that while there was no concept of a homosexual identity, there were instances of professed homosexuality that historically allowed for a degree of tolerance. He also discusses the impact of Western colonialism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on attitudes towards homosexuality in the region. He emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of sexual and gender identities in Islamic societies.
Queer Identities in Maghrebian and North African Francophone Literature
Odile Cazenave, “Gender, Age, and Narrative Transformations in L’Enfant de Sable by Tahar Ben Jelloun,” The French Review 64, no. 3 (1991): 437–50.
French language and literature scholar Odile Cazenave analyzes Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel L’Enfant de Sable [The Sand Child], highlighting the role of gender and identity in African and North-African literature. Gender and queer identity are central themes in the novel. The protagonist, Zahra, is raised as a boy to fulfill her father’s desire for a male heir. Despite knowing she’s female, Zahra is forced to live as a boy and struggles with her gender identity throughout the story. Ben Jelloun explores gender fluidity and societal constructs of gender as Zahra discovers she can transform into a man at will. The novel also delves into the intersection of gender and sexuality as Zahra develops romantic feelings towards another woman while living as a man.
Cazenave examines the use of symbolism and narrative techniques to highlight ambiguity in gender and identity as well as the implications of cultural patterns related to the ideology of society. Her analysis sheds light on the complex ways in which societal norms and language shape individuals’ identities. Although Ben Jelloun doesn’t identify as a queer writer, he was one of the first Moroccan writers to feature a queer character in a novel. This is consistent with his exploration of themes related to identity and social justice through fiction.
Rachid O. Chocolate chaud (Paris: L’Infini/Gallimard, 1998).
Moroccan author Rachid O. burst onto the literary scene in 1995 with his debut book, L’Enfant ébloui [The Astonished Child]. He followed up with Plusiers vies [Several Lives] in 1996, Chocolate chaud [Hot Chocolate] in 1998, and Ce qui reste [That Which Remains] in 2002. Although Rachid O. rarely writes explicitly about sex, his work is marked by an unflinching exploration of the complexities and vagaries of homosexuality in Morocco. His writing delves deeply into themes of identity, sexuality, and social justice and has earned him both national and international recognition for its powerful and evocative style.
Chocolate chaud stands out as a novel that fearlessly confronts the challenges faced by a young Moroccan man named Amine as he grapples with his sexuality in a culture where homosexuality is deeply stigmatized. Throughout the novel, Amine struggles to come to terms with his desires while navigating a society that is often hostile to those who do not conform to traditional gender roles. Moving from his rural hometown to the city of Tangiers and embarking on a romantic relationship with a Spanish man named Octavio, Amine must negotiate the clash between tradition and modernity while striving to assert his own sense of identity. Through its gripping portrayal of Amine’s journey, Chocolate chaud offers a powerful meditation on the complex interplay between desire, tradition, and cultural identity.
Abdellah Taïa, L’Armée du salut (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2006) [Salvation Army, trans. Frank Stock (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009)]; and Une mélancolie arabe (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2008) [An Arab Melancholia, trans Frank Stock (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009)]
Moroccan writer, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Abdellah Taïa is known for his honest portrayal of queer desire, identity, and experience. He is recognized as an important voice in contemporary Arabic literature for openly discussing homosexuality in his work. Taïa’s semi-autobiographical novel L’Armée du salut [Salvation Army] tells the story of a young gay man named Abdellah who grows up in Morocco before moving to Switzerland to attend university. Taïa uses the story to explore themes related to identity, sexuality, family, and culture as Abdellah navigates his journey towards self-discovery and acceptance. Taïa adapted the book into a film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, becoming the first Moroccan film to do so.
Valérie K. Orlando praises Taïa’s use of symbolism and imagery to convey the unspoken aspects of Moroccan culture:
Emotionally, L’Armée du Salut (Salvation Army) is very rich, although the tightly wound emotions are often conveyed more by what is not said than by what is said. Abandonment and loss, frequent influences on Abdellah’s reality, are conveyed primarily through image rather than words […] Audiences will notice first and foremost the lack of dialogue, the parsed words, the un-uttered sentences: what should be said, but isn’t. The unsaid and the unsayable in Moroccan culture are aspects of the film that leave us, like the young Abdellah, uncomfortable in our own skins. Taïa uses many symbols to evoke the real-life oppression he feels as he is caught in the binds of traditional society.
Taïa’s Une mélancolie arabe [Arab Melancholia] also follows the story of a young gay man named Abdellah who moves between his homeland of Morocco, Switzerland, France, and Egypt. Raised in a poor family, Abdellah struggles with his sexuality and identity and the potential for violence this brings to him.
Taïa’s work offers powerful insights into the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in Morocco and highlight the need for greater acceptance and understanding within society.
Nina Bouraoui, Garçon Manqué (Paris: Stock, 2000).
Nina Bouraoui is a French-Algerian writer known for her semi-autobiographical novel Garçon manqué [Tomboy]. The novel follows the life of Nadia, a tomboy growing up in Algeria and France who struggles with societal expectations that reinforce traditional gender roles. Through Nadia, Bouraoui explores themes such as gender, sexuality, family, and cultural identity. Scholars such as Nancy Arenberg have analyzed the representation of the body and socio-political ramifications of gender crossing in Bouraoui’s work, drawing on critical approaches by scholars including Judith Butler, Marjorie Garber, and Judith Halberstrom. Arenberg suggests that Garçon manqué explores hybrid identity as a postcolonial struggle grappling with fractured identity that vacillates between masculine and feminine identities.
William J. Spurlin, “Contested Borders: Cultural Translation and Queer Politics in Contemporary Francophone Writing from the Maghreb,” Research in African Literatures 47, no. 2 (2016): 104–20.
William Spurlin provides a thorough analysis of postcolonial literature written by gay and lesbian authors from the Maghreb. He analyzes the work of Rachid O., Abdellah Taïa, and Nina Bouraoui to “examine representations of dissident desire that occur in the spaces between geopolitical and other discursive borders and that both subvert and exceed the internal/external distinction made possible by the very instantiation of borders.” Spurlin discusses the intersection of postcolonial and queer studies in African literature, highlighting how authors negotiate multiple identities and subjectivities while challenging fixed notions of identity and cultural authenticity imposed under colonialism. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing “the contingencies, the intersectionalities, the variabilities, the splittings, and the translative displacements that constitute queer postcolonial African subjectivities.” Spurlin’s work is relevant to those interested in understanding the complexities of queerness in the Maghreb and how postcolonial African literature challenges binary thinking around gender, sexuality, and national belonging.