My non-fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Kathryn Babayan’s and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s (Eds.) Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire.
And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.
My non-fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Kathryn Babayan’s and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s (Eds.) Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire.
And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.
Afsaneh Najmabadi is one of my favourite writers. My first encounter with her was two years ago with Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. 2013 Book of the Year for me. That same year, she published Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, which I read last year. Book of the Year again. Obviously I’d have Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire, edited by her and Kathryn Babayan, at the top of my reading list. It’s been on my shelf a few weeks now, one of that pile I collected when I sold off the bollocks. I started it a couple of times, got diverted into other books, made a diligent foray into the first part over breakfast and you wanna talk about books you can’t put down? This is it.
I was rewriting my biography last week, amazing how many hours can be spent on 240 words. I realised that it’s been a while since Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan, has been one of the foci of my studies. China’s still there, mediæval northern European / germanic history has sprung from nowhere to rout swathes of interests, as has Islamic history.
A big one right there, “Islamic History”. What does that even mean? Well, my interests in China did and do have a component that’s concerned with the borders, not China proper, occupied China, whatever we might agree in the future is the term for Tibet, Xinjiang, even the provinces like Guangdong and others, which could be regarded as discrete countries, and in that Islam plays a role, either in Xinjiang as the eastern-most region of Central Asia, or in Guangdong as the port on trade routes that saw significant Muslim presence. Then there’s my Central Asian / Afghanistan interest, obviously Islamic (as well as Buddhist and others), which in the past few years has slid more consciously over into an interest in Iran, thanks in no small amount to Najmabadi. And then there’s whatever is in Berlin, which reaches out to Germany, and across Europe. A history of any of these is inextricable from a history of people who also happened to be Muslim, whether immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or locals (not sure how long you have to be a descendant for before you’re a local; that’s the conversation we’re having right now).
So I’m vaguely defining my current interests and studies as Northern European & Germanic mediæval, Islamic, and Chinese history, with an emphasis on women’s roles and representation. Which sounds like a whole tanker of “What the Fuck?” but if there’s one thing I do even if I don’t consciously trust my doing, it’s have seemingly wildly divergent interests that are in actual fact deeply intertwined. (And yes, my love of hoonage is not incommensurable with this.) And it’s people like Najmabadi and books like Islamicate Sexualities that help me understand this.
And what a book. If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of works mentioned which go onto my Must Buy! Ned Cash 4 Bookz list, this one will bankrupt me.
I was watching the première of Pitch on the weekend. It’s a Fox TV series about a young black woman who becomes the first woman to play for a Major League baseball team; a serious drama marketing campaign equivalent of the “You Never Lamb Alone” ad (“What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!”). I have zero interest in baseball, but there I was watching it when for a split second the camera cuts to close-up pan the grandstands and it’s totally “What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!” cos there’s a woman standing wearing a long white hijab in a crowd that’s multicultural as fuck. I don’t know if this is representative of an average baseball crowd, my feeling (informed only by unintentional slopping around the edges of US sports culture) is that American baseball has one of the whiter sports audiences, not NASCAR, but over that end of the spectrum. What that image is about is desire — even if it’s primarily driven by marketing and money. In combination with casting a black woman as a rookie Major League player, it says, “We see you and we want you here.” And again, even if this is cravenly driven by money, we see ourselves in this and once we are visible, we can decide how to interpret our image. And if we don’t see ourselves, we’re nothing.
And how, Frances, does this relate to Islamicate Sexualities? Same weekend, watching the second episode of High Maintenance where the first story is about a young South Asian student living in Brooklyn with her religious aunt and uncle, negotiating that while wanting to get blazed on the roof. The first essay, also the introduction goes between Orientalism, homo-nationalism, queer colonialism, mediæval history, post-colonial theory, to sketch out a broad proposal for how we might talk about sexualities, and by extension identities, for people living in and coming from Islamicate regions, cultures, and/or backgrounds. And talking about ourselves, not being talked about.
Somewhere recently I said I was only interested in reading works coming from this perspective, that the issues and questions around desire, identity, self and community would only find partial, incomplete answers in feminism/queer/whatever we’re currently calling it that was located within an Anglo-Euro-American (throw in Australasian) historical frame of reference, a reference that’s inherently white. Or to put it another way, we’re not going to find an answer to colonialism from colonialists. This is something I think has become unambiguous from living in Europe and Germany, where not only is there an unwillingness to regard immigrants of how ever many generations distant as ‘German’, we’re not even at the point of admitting this a fundamental problem. My reading of works like Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany played a big part in beginning to understand this and formulate my thinking, as did more recently Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. I’m reading writers like these substantially because they’re the only ones prepared to address these issues.
Islamicate Sexualities was published in 2008, emerging from a seminar held in 2003. That’s a generation, a lifetime ago, the seminar a few months older than 4Chan; the book barely younger than tumblr. Yeah, I’m talking about 4Chan and tumblr. If you want to understand how transgender/transsexual/trans people (I mean trans women here) and identities came over the last few years (call it a decade) to where they are now, places like these (along with LiveJournal, and probably MySpace, but that’s all been lost) are critical. And how fast this is moving means a book like this is going to miss a huge part of the conversation as much as it retroactively informs and predicts. (And as for why our part of the conversation is only recently tipped the queer/cool meter, that’s the history of Anglo-Euro-American feminism/queer right there.) I’ve barely read the first part, so I’m not pre-emptively criticising it here, just pointing out its age, how things have changed in eight years, and what that might mean for a prospective reader.
Probably Twitter is where I first saw Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, and a few months ago at that, before this revised edition was published. Probably it was also mentioned on one of the Middle East / Central Asia / Feminist blogs I read; things I’m interested in tend to circulate unconnected across multiple disciplines and fields, the same names coming up like ear worms. So onto my reading list it went, and being read it is.
Mid-late last year—October-ish, when I do my annual Books of the Year—I realised I was frustrated with my reading, and looking at previous years when I was mad-thrilled about far too many books, realised also I needed to diversify. That has been partly turning my euros towards—and here I get caught in words I’m not so fond of, so caveats ahoy—feminist-ish, Middle-East-ish, philosophy/ethics/human rights mashed with a secular-ish Islamic frame of reference, plus migrant perspective also.
I have a tendency to define things from the negatory: not this, not that. Yeah, so what? It helps elucidate what this or that is by shaving off what isn’t, often because I can’t say or don’t know what a thing is until I’m partially clear on what it’s not. So what I was not looking for was primarily yet another voice coming from white, Anglo-Euro-American culture. I’ve read enough feminism from that dominant perspective already, and part of that negatory process of mine is divining what’s being missed, not talked about, ignored, excluded. It’s a pretty simple and dumb method, and works for me.
That negatory resolved into a clear delineation of what I did want to read: it’s kinda, “What if Hannah Arendt was a secular Muslim (Turkish, Middle Eastern, Persian, you get the picture) in the 21st century, what would she write?” I dunno, probably something along the lines of Seyla Benhabib, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, Afsaneh Najmabadi, or Kecia Ali.
Let’s just say there’s some fully awesome women writing on these interconnected subjects, and Kecia Ali is one of them. And like black/brown, trans women feminism coming out of Anglo-American locations, it’s where the real hard work is being done. Compared to Seyla Benhabib, Sexual Ethics in Islam is light reading, which is not to say it’s not demanding and well-researched, just that Benhabib is more like ploughing through The Life of the Mind, and Ali I can read over breakfast without my brain leaking. Too much.
I’m about halfway through, so against my desire to write about why I’m reading a particular book rather than review it, this is slipping between the two. This far through, it’s pretty clear that Islam is unsalvageable. Just like Christianity. Unsurprising when they both share the same Abrahamic root, so could roll Judaism into that as well. It’s unsalvageable because either you’re a literalist or you’re a contextualist; you can’t be both, but that’s precisely what people in those religions try to do. There’s no way around God hates fags, women, and quite a few other things. So if you’re looking to resolve that in Islam or Christianity, it requires entering the realm of contextual interpretation—as well as historical revisionism, because whatever queer or homo is in the 21st century is substantially incomprehensible in medieval religion. It’s this approach also that’s seen by literalists and fundamentalists as ‘picking and choosing’ from the infallible divine word, and more or less defines the opposing sides in what Islam will become.
Mediæval history is full of extremely intelligent logical philosophers, of whom perhaps I could say their prime concern is internal consistency. This applies as much to Islamic theologians as it does to Christianity, centuries-long impenetrable debates that were as much political as they were religious. In Islam, or rather the medieval Islamic jurisprudence I’ve brushed upon, I often find a logical extrapolation that is either well-buried or not explicitly stated in Christianity, it’s a thinking through the implications of a statement, often well outside what empirical knowledge can deliver. While Ali isn’t proposing a manifesto for an Islamic reform, what she does do is work through these debates and decrees, point out their inconsistencies, and point out how they can be reconciled with a 21st century Islam.
One of the things I was thinking about early on in reading was how this book is contingent on 20th century history. The secular nationalist projects of the early years of the century in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere, the post-war decolonising of Africa and the Middle East, all propose a different path for Islam than we currently have if these same countries hadn’t been the sites of West-East proxy wars and meddling. What kind of book would Sexual Ethics and Islam be if the 1979 revolution in Iran hadn’t happened, and the invasion of Afghanistan, if the 1950s and ’60s revolutions and coups hadn’t happened, or hadn’t become military dictatorships, if the 21st century ‘International Community’ hadn’t been so hungry for invasion and war across the Middle East and North Africa? Would it have even needed to be written? Would it have been only of academic or sociological interest? Or is it that anyway? Is the Islam that’s lived far more a secular, contextual experience than it’s possible to apprehend or understand while Anglo-Euro-American islamophobia and racism remains ascendant?
One thing that is missing though, and for which I’m pretty cynical about, is trans people—particularly trans women—in Islam. Ali mostly subsumes trans identities under homosexual/queer sexuality (when they’re mentioned at all, which is not bloody often) in the chapter “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Same-Sex Intimacy in Islam”. In itself that’s fine, considering the issues—legal, social, medical, religious—which determine the lives of people whose sexuality isn’t narrowly directed into normative roles affect trans people equally as they do lgbt/queer/non-straight people—and let’s dispense with glossing over trans lgbt/queer/non-straight people being a thing too. As well, she originally wrote the book some ten years ago, when cis feminists could easily get away ignoring trans issues with no repercussions. Now it’s all Tranny-Tipping Point (thanks tumblr, 4chan, and Twitter!) so there’s gotta be at least the effort made to lip service, tokenism, ‘intersectionality’. Yeah, pretty disappointed here on this one.
Najmabadi wrote a whole book on transsexuality in Iran—two if you count some of Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards as well as Professing Selves; Kohmeini’s Fatwas from 1963 on intersex people and 1987 on transsexual people is still remarkable (as I’ve said before, I’m using transsexual specifically to differentiate from umbrella transgender/trans/trans* cos I think if we’re gonna appellation everything, then there’s a need for a term under that umbrella for trans people who go down the ‘transitioning’/‘gender confirmation’ path, with all the institutional legal and medical processes that involves); there’s ample evidence in mediæval Islamic thought and writings that people who were somehow not categorisable as unequivocally male or female were a thing, and that Islam had far less of a problem with this than Christianity, more than enough that a whole new chapter on this would be more than appropriate. Nope. Disappointed. Really a missed opportunity there.
As a kind of muslim/non-muslim/wtf I don’t know … what happens when a parent is Muslim or was the child of Muslims, but raises their child without this ever being mentioned? Sure, you’re not brought up Muslim, but how much of the parent and grandparent’s experiences slips over? Not having a Halal kitchen is something a person who has never had anything to do with Islam has ever thought, “fark, that’s ruined it for the grandparents.” Anyway as an I don’t know with Muslim ancestors who is dead curious about that side of my family, I keep thinking of my grandmother while reading this. Also would recommend over any of the other books I’ve mentioned because it’s a much easier read, and far broader in scope, one of those fundamental texts, even if you read nothing else on Islam, there’s enough nuance, depth, scholarship here to actually understand the issues and what’s at stake.
Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity had been on my reading list for a long time before I got around to buying it, and it quickly became a work I refer to for all things 19th-century Iran; Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran on the other hand I had on pre-order from the moment I first read of it, have been working my way through ever since, though likewise it’s become a critical reference for me. Both works I’ve put down and picked up again, interspersing her dense academic writing with sallies into sci-fi and fantasy. Neither of these are casual reads, just having to flick back and forth to the extensive notes (almost a quarter of the book in Professing Selves case) breaks my usual reading speed.
I’ve discovered in the last couple of years in branching out from exclusively China/Central Asian study that there are similar authors, academics, researchers to be found elsewhere, which is to say that Najmababi is the Iranian equivalent of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter on China or Katherine Pratt Ewing on Islam. Part of this is the specificity of their topics—Mann on a family of Qing Dynasty literary women or Ewing on Muslim men in Berlin—from which they expand out to frame an entire era and cultural region (Mann the Jiangnan region, and Ewing concentrically out from Berlin to Germany then Europe). I could even add Nicole Griffith’s Hild to this list (or other sci-fi or fantasy for that matter). It’s not a banal, self-evident thing to say it’s possible to find similar authors in diverse fields; it’s taken me a lot of time to find works outside the habitual historical/anthropological/political trajectory of works, to find ones that actually demonstrate scholarship, intelligence, curiosity, critical thinking, all traits one would suppose are mandatory, yet largely seem to be absent. For example, reading on Afghanistan for me dried up completely as new publications fell broadly into Taliban/New Taliban/regional geopolitics/war, always against the mirror (or spectre) of the USA and the ‘international community’, all of which I can get from blogs by specialists already. Works of substance like Mann or Najmabadi on the region—both in terms of subject matter and scholarship—don’t seem to exist of late.
Professing Selves is a complex, extremely well-researched and written work at the intersection of three individual subjects already poorly understood in western culture—transsexuality and gender identity, Islam, and Iran—that meet in a period from mid-late-20th-century to today. A digression: I’m about half-way through and it’s occurred to me there is no comparable work on transsexuality and gender identity in western countries that I can think of, certainly not one that goes into such detail (Susan Stryker’s Transgender History is not comparable, nor exactly is The Transgender Studies Reader works, which she edited), which makes it all the more remarkable such a work is first written on Iran, a country positioned since the revolution as diametrically opposite the west’s imagination of itself.
A second digression: the west’s understanding of transgender and GLBT issues in Iran in mainstream media (where it occurs) and GLBT media is largely framed in terms of coercive or forced sex-change on gay and lesbian people as a cure for homosexuality perpetrated by a variant of ‘Islamofascism’, which to me seems to be driven by equal parts homonationalism and transmisogyny on the part of that media. While this is covered here (and separately by Najmabadi in other essays), it’s only within the context of a work which spans almost 60 years of Iranian history from post-WW2, and only within the broader transsexual/transgender, GLBT history in Iran which in itself drew much from contemporaneous western developments.
I’m perhaps not doing such a good job of summarising this. To understand the situation for trans and GLBT people in Iran at the moment, Najmabadi explores western cultural influence on Iran stretching back to the 19th century, Islamic law and the fatwas on transsexuality and sex reassignment surgery, intersex and the changing relationship with transsexuality, cultural categories of masculinity and femininity, emerging gay, lesbian, feminist movements in the ’70s, the Iranian Revolution, political, religious, medical positions and disputes, media coverage and popular culture, all of which pulled the status of gender- and sexually- non-conforming people back and forth between various states of legality, permissibility, visibility, and simultaneously opened and closed paths for a liveable life. (Despite the sometimes problematic use of appellations for trans people, Trans[ition] in Iran is a pretty good read on this.)
Speaking of appellations, and being immersed for years in the shifting choice of words to describe all this, from transsexual to transgender, trans with or without an asterisk, queer, along the way words taken up as self-identification have been dropped and become pejorative. Even the word ‘transsexuality’ on the cover would likely be replaced by ‘transgender’ (viz. Stryker, above), and terms such as MtF (male-to-female) would be instead be trans woman, along with MAAB (male assigned at birth). This last term, demonstrates an medico-legal act rather than an identity or biological ‘fact’ or ‘truth’, and I think far more accurately illustrates what’s going on before any trans status than MtF which uncritically makes some large and groundless assumptions. Transsexual has similarly been under contention for years, with transgender first replacing transsexual and broadening to become an umbrella for all gender non-conforming categories, while lately transsexual seems to be reemerging. All of which is to say it’s extremely difficult to talk about this in a way which respects the people who take these words for themselves or to whom these words are applied, as evinced by this paragraph alone. In Najmabadi’s case, I find the choice of words aids in understanding the specificity of the situation both now and historically in Iran (despite their sometimes anachronistic sound), where these are words in use by both trans people, and the medical, legal, and religious establishments where they have specific additional meanings distinct from what they do in western countries.
A great enjoyment in reading Professing Selves is that it is removed from contemporary western trans/queer/feminist theory. It offers a specific regional and historic account of trans identities, yet does not try and frame this in prevalent western narratives even though having a deep understanding of them. Crucially here, I think that when trans/queer/feminist theory (which is disproportionately coming from the US) talks about intersectionality, it’s precisely a work like this that is missing from the discussion. Further, unlike say, Tanaz Eshaghian’s film Be Like Others (which for me slides into the transmisogyny and homonationalism commonly found when discussing trans people—especially trans women—and Iran), Najmabadi has nothing invested in promoting either of the “Iran as transsexual paradise” or “Iran as land of forced gay sex-change” mythemes, nor in writing a work that confirms any current popular ideas (particularly those coming from GLBT media) about Iran and Islam alone or in combination with trans issues. It’s unlikely Professing Selves will be widely read though, which is a great pity as it deserves to be, and Najmabadi deserves also to be far better known in trans and queer theory than she is. Nonetheless, it’s equally unlikely there will be a better work written on Iran, Islam, and trans people any time soon.
As usual, I didn’t read the blurb closely enough. I thought this was an anthology of Afrofuturist sci-fi and fantasy; turns out it’s an anthropological history of it. Which is actually probably better for me to read anyway. As to why I’m reading it …
There is a definite correlation with my reading decision in skiffy a couple years ago to actively read women authors – something I’d been musing on that also was prodded into deliberate action by a post on Charles Stross’ blog asking the question, “What do you think is the most important novel of the past 10-and-a-bit years (published since January 1st 2000)? All male authors are disqualified.” (first comment: “This is going to be brief, and interesting…”). This obviously begged the question, “Where are the non-Anglo-American skiffy/fantasy writers?” a question I’ve felt much more of an urge to answer as the monoculture of the white male writer presents a stunningly limited worldview and range of possibilities for fiction.
Enter Saladin Ahmed, writing some kind of Arabian fantasy (Lovecraftian 1001 Nights-ish), which was so refreshing just for the different setting: no crypto-euro monarchism here. And between reading him and now, I have fallen into a rich world that appears to be on the cusp of becoming mainstream – well, as mainstream as reading sci-fi and fantasy printed on dead trees has ever been. Which led me to reading about Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, and thinking, “Ooh, I’ll have some of that!” and so off we go, another book on my shelf.
I was hoping for an anthology though; that’s always been my reliable way of finding new authors (of which I currently have far too many and they are proliferating), but there are enough references in this that there will be at least one who will pique my interest. It’s also very United States focussed, but I’m a few chapters in and finding it a fun and quick read, and as well it’s causing me to think about how a conception of Afrofuturism is applicable to finding other ~futurisms: Islamofuturism, Persofuturism, Turkofuturism …
I’ve already finished it.
Joan Slonczewski I discovered through Charles Stross, when she guest-blogged there, and her The Highest Frontier was my fiction book of the year this year. Getting hold of Brain Plague took longer than expected – much longer than reading it. I stopped in a café on the way home last night and began two hours there, devouring another third when I arrived in bed, and finishing it off in bits and pieces over the course of today.
A comparison with China Mievillé’s Embassytown comes to mind. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to hold off before ordering en masse the remainder of her books.
It was only in July this year, Liao Yiwu paid himself into the hands of smugglers on the border of Yunnan and, arriving at Tegel Airport in Berlin, escaped China. A peculiar thought, someone would escape China as did during the Cold War, defectors. I imagine a defector to be someone like Nureyev, or from China, Li Cunxin – something that happened in the past of superpowers, but not today when China is so inextricably bound in world affairs. Or rather, we in China.
Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker – Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up was one of my picks of 2008, and remains so. I haven’t found another contemporary Chinese writer who comes close to his brilliance – perhaps Ai Weiwei as an artist is though. I also wanted to read his book on his time in prison, though being only in German at the moment, shall be a task for my german improvement.
God is Red – The secret story of how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China, is somewhat conflicting for me to want to read, as I don’t really have an interest in Christianity. However, being Liao Yiwu, of course it’s now beside my bed.
One of my favourite means of getting around Guangzhou since I first got over my terror of speeding death under a plastic helmet is motorbike taxis. Illegal, unregistered, cheap, friendly and always knowing the strangest and fastest shortcuts across town, I always found them more friendly than the vast majority of legal taxi drivers in their beat-up Volkswagen Vettas and would often end up talking with them and later thinking someone needs to remember their lives, especially as they are going to be outlawed by the end of this year in Guangzhou, meaning more hardworking people who are barely surviving will be unemployed.
It’s not too unsurprising to find one of them is blogging, nor is it surprising they come from Hunan, or more exactly, Changsha. 陈洪 Chen Hong is blogging at 长沙刁民 Changsha Rogue, and China Digital Times 中国数字时代 wrote about him today.
The Self-Narrative of a Motorcycle Driver – Chen Hong
A two-month old blog attracted more than 150,000 clicks and over 3,000 comments. Its daily visitors reached as many as 5,000. This is not a blog about sex or private lives. It’s about social problems, economic reforms and bureaucracy, and it’s written by a motorcycle taxi driver who never went to college, and whose business is illegal in China.
Chen Hong calls himself “Changshao Rogue” in his blog. Living in Changsha, Hunan Province, Chen was laid off ten years ago. He tried everything and ended up driving a motorcycle to make a living.
In one of his blog posts, “a self-narrative of a motorcycle driver,” he said:
For dozens of years all our labor and efforts only ended up helping a group of the social elite… And we end up as elements of disharmony in a “harmonious society”–the illegal motorcycle drivers. I don’t intentionally violate laws. I became a motorcycle driver because I was starving. Some said a harmonious society ensures the right of every member. But to those who lost their jobs and means to earn a living, what else can they do except drive a motorcycle?
Someone identifying themselves as “Guo Feng, a graduate student from People’s University” replied to this post:
I don’t agree with you. The country and the government are not obligated to take care of our generation for our whole lives. We once stood at the same starting point. Some get rich, some get left behind. We should responsibility for ourselves. Motorcycles are not supposed to be used to carry passengers. You put our lives in danger by riding a motorcycle to make money. The society can’t change itself. You must adapt to the society.
The two argued back and forth. Most blog readers stand on Chen’s side. Later on, Chen was even threatened for his post on social inequality.