Art, LGBTQ+, and the Middle East: How to talk about the oppressed without talking about The Oppressed

Prominent western media sources only recognize the identity of being both Arab and queer, by combining them into a hyphenated subject (the queer-muslim-arab, or the gay-arab) and defining them as “the oppressed.” As a result, ‘queer-Arab’ seems eternally synonymous with ‘victim.’

Recent Western media attention to a Lebanese music band, Mashrou’ Leila , focuses on the Egyptian government’s accusations against it. The band, the lead singer (an openly gay man), and audience members holding a rainbow flag bare blame from the Egyptian government for “ promoting sexual deviancy. ” All reports of these accusation lead to the statement that Egypt is a “ mostly Muslim country,” or that “ Homosexuality is widely unpopular in Egypt. ” Noticing the blatant non-sequiturs, I wonder how we address such absurd accusations and the real oppression they manifest without making the oppression into the essence of the "Gay-Arab’ or the ‘Gay-Muslim’.

People often use art as a reflection of a place. This model is problematic. If art is merely a reflection of a society, then we can say we understand the social problems the society faces because they are being expressed through art. We thereby clamp down on what the society is and overlook how the art itself is triggering certain things rather than simply reflecting them. Here the problem emerges in talk about the arts as both an object and a subject -- both processes fall victim to the problem of fixing them in their place.

Taking Mashrou’ Leila’s music and governmental reactions to it as a reflection of Arab society, we see a society struggling. Dictators oppressing gays. Gays as victims. And that’s that. It’s a cursory, passive, outsider’s approach that leaves us free of any accountability and involvement. We won’t think that we need to learn more; because we are content with the intelligibility of the reflection: it fits into the stereotypes we already hold.


We agree it’s wrong to oppress someone, right? That’s why we are so outraged when we read such things in the news. This, insofar as it pertains to the "other’ at least, has been made clear to us. So when we talk about the oppressed, we have both subconsciously and consciously detached ourselves from the process of creating the oppression as we assume that it is already existent. We may not be taking part in the active oppression, but our passive understanding directly takes part in the creation of The Oppressed -- which, I would argue, is simply an extension of the process of oppression. The West’s discussion of the fragmentation of the subject (the queer Arab), creates a subject, and reflects back on these overdetermined groups that are identifiable.

Challengingly, Mashrou’ Leila’s music deals with issues in Arab societies that people can make a bit of sense of abroad. The topic itself both falls victims to actual homophobic laws and people in Egyptian society, and simultaneously falls victim to a victimization that reaffirms the stereotypes passive-lazy listeners hold. The music confirms to the listeners that they live in a great place, opposed to the ‘Arab world,’ heard as the place of The Oppressed.

That’s not what music is about. Music is about an exchange that requires audience’s active participation. That is why the audience, when challenged by this music, should learn new skills, new ways of listening, that enable it to learn more about the society that is being triggered by Mashrou’ Leila’s music rather than being reflected by their music. This involves the listeners in the exchange.

Some say Mashrou’ Leila forms itself for the West by choosing “topics” that appeal to the West. They claim, the band degrades the East and capitulates to the West. But where does that leave the Queer Arab? Caught in the midst of seeming irreconcilability, the Arab Queer cannot speak. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Should they not talk (sing) about those things? Of course they should. But their speaking is not the end -- if it were, then their speech is just a reflection of a fixed society and we (audience members) do not find ourselves by receiving their music in an exchange.

The ‘Arab society’ objectifies the queer Arab and as a result can oppress the object, and the West subjectifies the queer arab as The Oppressed . In both cases, the Arab queer is rendered speechless. But that does not have to be the end, if we recognize our implication.

The worst thing we can do is to say “Gays over there are victims.” That would be a re-alienation. Try, “How have we been involved in creating this situation, and what more do we need to learn to understand the oppression without creating The Oppressed ?”