Celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month at the NGL

Last month was the UK’s LGBTQ+ History Month, and to celebrate this occasion, we at the Nizami Ganjavi Library created a display to showcase some of the Bodleian Libraries’ LGBTQ+ related materials, from across the Middle East. I hope that seeing this side of the collections was as enlightening for you as it was for me, and thank you for all those who expressed a positive interesWith the NGL’s blog newly up-and-running, I thought I would it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to provide a bit more information!

A collection of books on a table. Some are proppeA collection of Bodleian Libraries' books on LGBTQ+ themes. Behind the books is a board with images from 'There Are No Homosexuals in Iran' on the left and the movie poster for 'Alexandria Again and Forever' on the right. In the centre is a sign with text in the colours of the Progress Pride flag that reads LGBTQ+ History Month at the NGL Behind the Lens.
Last month’s display by the NGL issue desk.

Front cover for the book Islamicate Sexualities

The display included works from and about a wide range of countries are included – Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Armenia – representing a diverse range of perspectives on LGBTQ+ experiences. This was very necessary, because often conversations on LGBTQ+ issues are dominated by Western frameworks – some of which may be inappropriate to the cultures discussed. This is a difficulty that the volume Islamicate Sexualities tackles head-on, questioning how well Western queer identities can apply to subjects of study that are distant not only geographically, but also temporally. The volume’s contributors carefully excavate from documentary evidence how various historic Islamic writers represented normative sexuality as it existed in their time and region, making for a fantastic and subtle analysis. I highly recommend this title!

Front cover for the book Unspeakable Love

Similarly, Brian Whitaker, in representing the LGBTQ+ experience leading to the modern day, carefully writes to avoid simple orientalist narratives about a repressive Middle East and a tolerant West. At the same time, he acknowledges the many obstacles faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the countries he discusses.

This reality can also be seen in how many of the queer authors included here write from outside of their country of origin, or in European languages, such as Abdellah Taïa who writes in French, and Khaled Alesmael who writes in German. This interplay is present in Siba Al-Harez’s novel The Others, in which the protagonist discovers same-sex attraction for the first time. Al-Harez writes about the difficulty of finding information about sexuality on the internet under Saudi censorship, and the different language that the unnamed main character encounters on domestic sites compared to foreign ones – language of sin versus language of identity – and how she finds both equally confusing.

Front cover for the book Selamlik by Khaled AlesmaelFront cover for the book Another Morocco by Abdellah TaïaFront cover for the book The Others by Siba Al-Harez

Image from There Are No Homosexuals in Iran depictingtwo fat women cover each other's faces in a well-lit white room. Both wear white t-shirts. One wears orange trousers and the other black trousers. One has blonde hair and the other has dark hair.
Image from ‘There Are No Homosexuals in Iran’ by Laurence Rasti

Yet another perspective can be seen in Swiss-Iranian photographer Laurence Rasti’s There Are No Homosexuals in Iran. This title is a reference to a comment made by then Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2007. In this beautiful series of photographs, Rasti shows a variety of queer Iranians defiantly and quietly living their daily lives, interspersed with images of Tehran and domestic scenes. Another reason why I chose to include Rasti’s work is because this year, the theme for LGBTQ+ History Month is ‘Behind the Lens’. This theme drew me to written works by queer Middle Eastern filmmakers like Khaled Alesmael, Saleem Haddad, and Abdellah Taïa, but also Hovhannes Tekgyozyan’s ‘movie novella’. This book both evokes the subject of filmmaking in the form of the protagonist, Gagik’s projects, and in its structure and style. To me, this novel is not only queer in having openly gay characters, but also in the way that Tekgyozyan’s use of ‘cuts’ and ‘scenes’ to play with time in this work, conjures the concept of ‘queer time’.

Movie poster for Alexandria Again and Forever with text in both French and English. In the foreground is the actor Amr Abdulgalil in a light suit and shirt, making a swooning gesture.
Movie poster for ‘Alexandria Again and Forever’.

I have also included in this display information about Youssef Chahine and his autobiographical Alexandria quadrilogy. While Chahine was never openly queer, the films in this series are notable for their nuanced depictions of masculine same-sex desire. Whether or not these representations illustrate anything about the creator’s own identity, the theme of ‘openness to the other’ runs through many of Chahine’s films, and his willingness to show queer perspectives fits this trend. In any case, these films are an indispensable part of understanding queer Egyptian cinema. I particularly recommend Alexandria Again and Forever – a genre-bending dramedy that examines themes of obsession, history, and auteur theory, but is also a fun experience.

It has been rewarding for me to look at LGBTQ+ history through a different ‘lens’ at the NGL, and I hope that you find something interesting or enlightening for you in these materials too. But this is nowhere near everything that the Bodleian has to offer on LGBTQ+ themes in the Middle East. For example, the book Queer Turkey: Transnational Poetics of Desire is also available online via SOLO. I can only encourage you to explore further!