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Arab World: Trouble for Gay Travels in the Muslim World

The first gay book to have been ever translated into Arabic after being originally printed in English has run into problems straight off the press.
The book, Gay Travels in the Muslim World, a compilation of stories penned by a collection of both Muslim and non-Muslim writers and edited by journalist Michael Luongo, has been translated into Arabic by publisher Arab Diffusion. Gay Travels in the Muslim World
The publisher, however, chose to translate the word gay as شاذ, (shaath), a word with the literal meaning of ‘deviant', or ‘pervert';- much to the dismay of both the authors and the gay community in the Arabic speaking world.
The concern over the translation chosen by the publishers reflects a broader concern over the negative terminology used by Arabic media in general to descibe homosexuals. Gay rights organisations and individuals across the Arabic speaking world have been pushing for media adoption of the word مثلي (mithlyy)- a term without the negative connotations associated with shaath.
Throughout the Arabic speaking world homosexuality remains a taboo, and is frowned on by society as a whole.
Bint el Nas, a site for LGBTQ women connected to the Arab world which strives to challenge the narrow image of homosexuals, states that:

The Arabic language does not have positive words to express the emotional or sexual relations between two people of the same gender. The known expressions in formal or classical Arabic are negative and degrading: “shouzouz jinsi” (unnatural or abnormal sexuality), “loowat” (the homosexual act among men, in reference to the story of Prophet Lot in the Bible or Lut in the Koran), and “sihaq” (the homosexual act among women). However, during the last years of the twentieth century, some sociologists, psychologists, and journalists whose professional conscience was alive, started to use the positive expression of “junusiya misliya”, which is an accurate translation for homosexuality — a word that was first used in the European languages around 100 years ago.

Bint el Nas has compiled a glossary of positive Arabic terms for sexuality, available to view here.

Many are frustrated by the mainstream media's neglect in adopting such positive expressions, and their lack of use in wider society. Algerian blogger Belphoros, writing in his blog, L'Algerie en Rose, points out that:

Il existe tres peu de terme en arabe, on n'aime pas nommer les choses, en ignorant les choses on croit les anuler, les nier, mais ca marche pas, c'est de l'hypocrrisie, il faut affronter les choses et avoir le courage de les nommer, essayons d'appeler Un CHAT un CHAT.

There exist few terms (for sexuality) in Arabic. We don't like to name things. In ignoring things, we think we erase them, deny them- but that does not work, its hypocrisy. We must face things and have the courage to name them; let's try to call a spade a spade.

He continues:

Les termes qui concerne l'homosexualite’ sont tres pejoratifs, …
Il faut qu'il y ai des termes neutres qui nous identifient, on doit travailler pour traduire les termes, enrichir le dictionnaire arabe, …

Terminology relating to homosexuality is very derogatory.
There is a need for a neutral terminology to identify us, we must work to translate such terms, and enrich the Arabic dictionary….

Belpheros goes on to call for a ban on the use of all derogatory terms denoting homosexuality by the media, and to replace them by the neutral mithlyy (for homosexual men) and mithlyya (for homosexual women).

Back in 2006, CNN's Hala Gorani wrote this piece about reporting on homosexuality in Beirut. When asking the Arabic speakers at CNN what the best translation for ‘gay’ would be in Arabic, the following responses were provided:

Heads were scratched. “Luti,” one suggested. “Shaz,” another offered in an e-mail.
Those terms are widely understood, but essentially translate as “pervert” or “deviant” in Arabic.

While more positive terminology has been adopted by some major publications such as Lebanese Al-Akhbar, the only Arabic newspaper that advocates for LGBTQ rights and covers LGBTQ issues in a positive light, in the majority of cases homosexuals are portrayed negatively by the media, the same negative terms are churned out again and again.

Nireblog recently resurrected a post originally from Ricky at Gayboyweekly
Addressing the use of “shaath”, Ricky asks:

الشذوذ بصفة عامة وباختصار هو ان يفعل الانسان شيء ضد طبيعته،فالمجرم شاذ والارهابي شاذ. وللاسف،يطلق بعض الناس لقب شاذ على المثليين،إما عن جهل او عمد،والسؤال المحير: كيف يطلقون لقب شاذ على المثليين ويقولون انهم يفعلون عكس طبيعتهم

To be ‘deviant', in short, is to do something against one's nature. Criminals are deviant, and terrorists are deviant. Unfortunately, some also call homosexuals deviant. This may be either through ignorance or intentionally.
The puzzling question is: How can you accuse homosexuals of deviancy and say that they are acting against their nature?

He stresses:

لقد خلق المثليين بطبيعتهم كما خلق المختلفين جنسيا بطبيعتهم،فالمثليين والمختلفين جنسيا اناس طبيعيين لا يختلفون عن بعضهم لا بالانسانية ولا بالشكل ولا بالطبيعة ….والشاذ الحقيقي هو الذي يسعى دائما لاقصاء الاخر

Homosexuals are created according to their nature, just as heterosexuals are created according to theirs. Homosexuals and heterosexuals are both natural people, with no difference between them in humanity, make or nature…The real deviant is the one who is always trying to oust the other.

Editor of Gay Travels in the Muslim World Michael Luongo has requested the publisher use a more neutral translation, however the books have already been sent for distribution and it is unlikely to be changed.

Richard Ammon, writer at Globalgayz and contributing author to the book, is reported as stating:

“It is…regretful for me to have this book, an honest testimony of gay Muslim life, have its title mistranslated with the use of a pejorative term that demeans gays. It is regretful that we have come so far in the struggle for gay rights and recognition only to be publicly smeared by a single unaware Jordanian publisher.”

Despite the negative response to the title translation, the fact that Gay Travels in the Muslim World has been translated and published for distribution in Arabic is in itself a great achievement. As most literature and information regarding homosexuality is not translated or published into Arabic, those from the Arabic speaking world who cannot read or understand European languages have been denied the opportunity to achieve the awareness, education and self-affirmation that stems from the exposure to such discourse.

Over at Queer Muslim magazine Huriyah‘s blog, editor Afdhere Jama underlines this point, saying:

i would have rather they used the word “مثلي”/”mithlee”, which literally means “same” (i.e, same-sex). but it is so nice that there is an arabic translation to this great book that one might even overlook the crude word. i would be more interested to know what the content of the book itself is like… rather than the title, though.

  • http://einmal-ist-keinmal.blogspot.com Pazuzu

    Well as a shezze from lebanon I believe in the term shez. So this mistake came as a pleasant surprise as far as I’m concerned :D
    I still have to find it, is it available in Lebanon? (be it the arabic or the english version)

  • Katharine Ganly

    The original English version was published in 2007, by Harrington Park press. I am pretty sure it is available in Lebanon. From what i understand the translation has been sent for distribution from the publishers, but is not in sale yet- but should be soon.

    I am interested, why the support for شاذ ?

    • http://einmal-ist-keinmal.blogspot.com Pazuzu

      euh, basically… it just makes sense to me. there are many reasons:
      1- I don’t identify as lesbian so it wouldn’t make sense for me to call myself that way, I don’t identify as bisexual either. I am just a human being with alternative gender and sexual identity. In arabic the only term I find for it is: شاذة. The term مثلية by definition means someone attracted to someone from the same sex/gender. It is not the case for me.
      2- As an activist and a writer/translator, i always have a problem with the arabic terms for the different LGBTQ identities and issues related. If I were to translate “LGBT” i would end up with an awkward “م ث م ” which stands for: مثلي أو مثلية، ثنائي أو ثنائية، متغاير الجنس I don’t like it, and I still can’t find anything that adapts the concepts and describes the community well enough. In addition, my personal identity as a queer in terms of gender identity and sexual identity just doesn’t exist in any politically correct form. The term شاذ أو شاذة, is just so perfect, because technically the term means “irregular” and I am irregular, even in my political and social opinions, in my taste in music etc. It’s the historical connotation that is demeaning.
      3- Politically I find it very empowering to isolate myself from the heteronormative society. I want to isolate myself from the severely gender segregated lebanese society I live in. I want to be irregular in a society where homophobia is the norm, I want to be irregular in a society where sexual harassment is the norm, I want to be irregular in a sectarian society, I want to be irregular in a war ravaged society etc.

      I don’t know if I explained my idea right, i hope so. But I know that this is not easy to explain, I have tried to explain it for so many people and they didn’t like it. I can explain queer (sometimes) but not شاذة. That’s why i only use this term to describe my identity, I never use it to refer to anyone else

  • http://leesean.net leesean hepnova

    I don’t have any knowledge of the Arabic language, but perhaps Pazuzu’s (re)appropriation of the term “shaz” is similar to English-speaking LGBT’ers reappropriating terms like “queer.”

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  • Katharine Ganly

    Definitely there is an argument for striving to reclaim شاذ, much in the same way ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ movement in the English-speaking world and is no longer derogatory.
    However, currently the word شاذ has not achieved this status in Arabic, and still brings a lot of baggage with it…I think it is great that Pazuzu identifies as شاذة – however, when the publishers chose this word in the translation of the book, i doubt they were doing it with the intention of appropriating the word for positive use- in fact i think they stated the reason they chose it was because “it was the word that they had always used”, and it seems (in my opinion) they gave little thought to the fact it is still used to insult homosexuals…
    ( incidentally, it is also inaccurate- as the English is not “Queer travels…”, for which there could have been an argument for the use of شاذ, but “Gay travels…” which is different…)
    Some have sought instead of trying to reclaim شاذ to coin a new positive expression to equate to the English ‘queer’, that is void of the historical baggage of شاذ.
    I know احرار الجنس (ahrar el jins) has been proposed for this, but have never really heard it in use.

    • http://einmal-ist-keinmal.blogspot.com Pazuzu

      eh that’s true, but keep in mind that:
      1- جنس is often used to translate either sex or gender or intercourse… a bit confusing when you are trying to make a certain message clear, like for example if you are talking about queer politics
      2- it’s two words, making grammatical manipulation of the word very difficult
      3- أحرار means free or liberated… the term أحرار الجنس when spoken makes me think of sexual liberation (تحرر جنسي) rather than anything related to queer identity
      LGBT terminology is not an easy task I tell ya!

      But getting back to the book, i am curious to know why he chose the book translators so lightly. Why didn’t he consult with different translators first. Or at least show his book to some lgbt activists in the Middle East before approving the translation. And about those translators… they must be so outdated, مثلي is gaining more and more ground even in some mainstream media, how can they not know this?

  • http://jilliancyork.com Jillian C. York

    Very interesting piece, Katharine!

  • Katharine Ganly

    Thank you Jillian :)

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