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Updated: 28 min 39 sec ago

LGBT Refugee Cinema, Queer Politics and Human Rights: ‘Mr Gay Syria’

17 hours 53 min ago

Ayse Toprak’s award-winning film complicates our understanding of both the refugee crisis and LGBT human rights movements.

Directed by Turkish filmmaker Ayse Toprak, the documentary Mr Gay Syria follows activist and journalist Mahmoud Hassino and some of the members of the Istanbul-based Syrian LGBT group ‘Tea and Talk’ as they prepare for the competition that will send the first Syrian delegate to the 2016 Mr Gay World contest in Malta. As the representative of the diasporic community of gay Syrians who escaped their homes when the war broke out in 2011, Mr Gay Syria – we learn – will be the only refugee competing for Mr Gay World.

The expedience of the Mr Gay World contest allows for the initial building up of a narrative of hope: we learn that the winner will go to Malta and then, maybe, will get a VISA to live and work in Europe; maybe he will find a boyfriend there and get married, one of the organisers says with a smile. The plan to send a Syrian to Mr Gay World with the objective of making LGBT refugees more visible internationally mirrors the way in which the documentary itself aspires to engage a global audience to convey its message. A Turkish-German-French co-production, Toprak’s film has been shown in over 55 international film festivals (winning 11 awards) but cannot yet have national distribution in Turkey, and it is unlikely it will be shown in Syria in the foreseeable future.

At one point in the documentary, Hassino explains the reason why he decided to organise the Mr Gay Syria contest: “It’s to change perception. The only image of gay Syrians [we have] is given by ISIS.” Hassino is referring to the horrific videos showing ISIS jihadists throwing several gay men off rooftops during the Syrian war. Far from simply shying away from this human tragedy, he insists on the need to substitute this array of deathly images with one of queer resilience and survival. As Toprak explains in an interview, Hassino “wanted the world to know about the living gay Syrians, not just the dead ones”. Hassino’s desire speaks to the kind of demand for recognition that Mr Gay Syria makes to its viewers, one that asks us to replace the depersonalised, anonymous image of the refugee that our contemporary media culture has fed us with real faces and life stories. It is an endeavour that comes with some costs, especially for the individuals who decide to share with us the pain of forced migration and the difficulty of living in homophobic societies. While revealing some of the challenges that these individuals face with their families and communities following their decision to appear in the film, the documentary gives voice to their shared determination to fight back.

For Philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the figure of the refugee forces us to abandon the concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of political life (citizen, sovereign people). In his essay ‘Beyond Human Rights’, Agamben refers to the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights […].’ While the article refers to all human beings, Agamben notes that the case of the refugee shows that human rights are not compatible to the mere condition of being alive. Although refugees are living beings, they do not automatically have access to the same rights as most of the citizens of a nation state, having to undergo assessments by immigration and naturalisation services intended to turn them into citizens. As the figure that should more than any other embody the notion of human rights, the refugee marks in fact the radical crisis of a notion that has been imbricated since its conception with the paradigm of the nation-state and the notion of nativity.

Considering the current plight of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and the inhumane response of many European nations to the current refugee crisis, it is hard not to take Agamben’s point seriously. Mr Gay Syria complicates this point by showing the ways in which the predicament of LGBT refugees fleeing war-torn Syria may shed light on some of the limitations of the much celebrated rise of a globalised LGBT political culture and its human rights agenda. A 24-year-old barber who fled Syrian, Hussein is the documentary’s main character who will eventually win the Mr Gay Syria title. Things turn out differently from what one might expect. Hussein has to endure a strenuous visa application process to see if he can travel to Malta. Mr Gay Syria ends up shedding light on some of the hypocrisies underlying the seemingly inclusive agenda of global LGBT brands such as Mr Gay World and their commitment to fight for the human rights of LGBT people around the world.

Through the focus on Hussein and the singularity of its title, Mr Gay Syria may seem initially invested in a narrative of queer politics that privileges the individual, one in which only one can win (and go to Mr Gay World), leaving others behind. This is where the film most surprises, allowing us to get to know a resilient network of friends, activists and lovers who appear deeply invested in collective practices of political action and mutual support.

On stage, Hussain wins the Mr Gay Syria’s competition with a moving monologue in which he talks to his mother about the hatred he has faced through his young life. For this monologue, Hussein kneels in front of an empty chair. It is an evocative image that relates to another heavy absence within the film: the country that these refugees clearly love, from which they have been forced to escape. Throughout the film, we never see the Syria that Hussein and his friends sorely miss. At the beginning and at the end of the film, Hussein sits on a roadside facing the Turkish-Syrian border. We see him looking ahead. Yet, as we are prompted to pay attention to his gaze, we don’t see what he is looking at. Evoked through the off-screen space, this painful absence haunts our viewing experience: maybe as a call to see beyond our restricted horizons?

In the ‘Beyond Human Rights’ essay, Agamben sees the refugee as a paradigmatic figure from which we should start re-thinking politics and a future ‘political community’ in radical ways. With the number of refugees and migrants forced to leave their countries increasing in the last few years (it is estimated that 3,500 queer refugees currently live in Berlin alone), films such as Mr Gay Syria ask us to also re-think the meaning of LGBT politics and the scope of queer film culture.

Photo Credit: Mr Gay Syria (dir. Ayse Toprak)

Categories: Muslim blogs

Darkness Descends on Sao Paulo

Wed, 21/08/2019 - 21:21

The sight of the burning Amazon rainforest and the dark smoke descending on Brazilian cities brings President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environment policies closer to home.

On the 19th of August, the skies of Sao Paulo went dark at 3pm.

The image resembles a scene from a dystopian sci-fi movie. Twitter users compared pictures of the city to the setting of Netflix series Stranger Things. For others, the darkness descending on Sao Paulo could be a metaphor for Brazil’s political climate. But the apocalyptic image is, unfortunately, literal. The dark smoke turning day into night is as real as the anti-environmental policies adopted by the country in recent months. Researchers have pointed out the link between wildfires and the smoke taking over the sky in Sao Paulo this week. Memes, including President Jair Bolsonaro as Marvel’s superhero ‘Storm’, appeared on social media where many voiced fear and concern for the Amazon forest. The daytime blackout in Sao Paulo has turned the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas into the top global Twitter trend at the time of writing, and has triggered debates about the future of the world’s largest rainforest.

The disaster comes after Norway followed Germany in suspending its contributions to the Amazon fund when President Jair Bolsonaro decided to change the rules for administering the fund. After recommending that people “poop every other day” to save the environment, Bolsonaro took Norway on for whaling and suggested that Angela Merkel use the money to reforest Germany. Although Bolsonaro responded to Norway and Germany with sarcasm, the deforestation rates in Brazil could jeopardise the recently concluded EU and Mercosur trade bloc agreement after 20 years of talks.

The deforestation of the Amazon comes not only at economic and diplomatic cost to Brazil, but also serious consequences to humanity. Recent tensions in the Amazon region also involved the indigenous people and land demarcation. Last month, United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the death of indigenous leader of the Waiapi tribe. The international coverage of the news drew attention to Bolsonaro’s history of opposing protection of indigenous lands – his government has an assimilation plan for them – and his public comparison of the indigenous in reservations to animals in the zoo.

A number of studies have pointed out that the deforestation of the Amazon has rocketed since Bolsonaro became president of Brazil. Controversies around Bolsonaro’s governing of the region have included the dismissal of Ricardo Galvao, the head of INPE (Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research), over a row relating to a deforestation report. While Galvao claimed that he was leaving due to an “unsustainable situation”, the government was quick to call out inaccurate reports of deforestation published under sensationalist headlines. In fact, misreported data is powerful ammunition for Bolsonaro in his attack on journalism, science and the environment. Yet no politician or scientist can downplay or create the effect of dark smoke covering Sao Paulo and surrounding cities during the day.

Due to the vast geography of the country, city dwellers in Brazil have always tended to be far removed from rainforest issues. The states of Amazonas and Rondonia are more than 2,700 km away from Sao Paulo. The association between the dark sky in the largest city of Brazil and the crisis in the Amazon has led to an arguably unprecedented reaction on social media. Sao Paulo inhabitants have now been faced with first hand experience of the effects of wildfires. The smoke that covered Sao Paulo has brought the problems of a remote region to the financial heart of the country, and has provided concrete evidence that the preservation of the forest is not only of concern to indigenous people, nor is it merely environmentalist scare-mongering. The dark skies indicate that the days of the “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the Amazon are numbered, despite widespread scepticism that continues worldwide around climate change.

Image from here

Categories: Muslim blogs

And She Was Loved: Remembering Toni Morrison, Builder of Worlds

Tue, 20/08/2019 - 13:13

How Toni Morrison taught us to build the world in the midst of ashes

The literary world lost its most important writer of the past century this month when Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, died at the age of 88. In the words of Dionne Brand, whose reflection on Morrison you should read, “Toni Morrison was the greatest writer in English of the 20th century and the 21st”.

Perhaps best known for her novel Beloved, whose story is inspired by that of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave mother who killed her children rather than have them taken back into slavery, Morrison was prolific. She published 11 novels, two plays, a libretto, multiple children’s books and countless essays and speeches, many of which are collected in 2019’s The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Morrison’s fiction exemplifies an excellence in literary and aesthetic craft, and is equally sophisticated in its rare, deep political and philosophical insight. One of my favourite sentences ever comes from A Mercy, a novel with a shifting setting in the North American colonies at the end of the 17th century: “Scully saw dark matter out there, thick, unknowable, aching to be made into a world.” This sentence lingers in the ear and weighs on the tongue – the commas slowing it down, drawing out the sensation of ‘aching’ towards active creation out of an inchoate and painful history, which the novel as a whole distils through its connected but disparate characters. Equally important to that sentence’s aesthetic beauty is its articulation of the very project in which Morrison was engaged in her life’s work: world-making.

In an interview shortly after the publication of Beloved, Morrison asserts, “Slavery broke the world in half.” Writing in, from and for a broken world, Morrison’s language – equal parts beautiful and devastating – seeks not merely to describe, to paint a picture, but to make a world. And not just in the pages of the novels. When Morrison imagines the interior life of Beloved’s Sethe, she fundamentally challenges the world in which she and her readers meet through her language at the same time as she is building a world for her fictional characters. Where the historical archives have only recorded slave histories as property gained and lost, Morrison dares to imagine life through her writing. The most powerful lesson I have learned from reading her work is that writing and language can be a vehicle for building the world anew in the midst of ashes.

One of Morrison’s most-often repeated quotes is, “the function of freedom is to free somebody else,” and her life’s work testifies to this ethic. Had she “only” gifted to us her fiction, Morrison would have left an immeasurably influential mark. But she was not only a writer; she was an editor as well. While working at Random House, Morrison helped usher now well-known black authors into wide readerships, including Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis. One of her most important projects was the publication of The Black Book, an anthology-collage of black life in North America from slavery through the early 20th century. Between her editorial work and her profound, brilliant literary criticism – indeed, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is an indispensable theoretical text – Morrison exemplified black feminist praxis which seeks not merely equality within the existing parameters of the world, but a new world altogether, built not for and/or by one exceptional individual, but for and by multitudes.

Famously, Morrison declared unequivocally throughout her career that she wrote for black people, especially black women, and one of the most important aesthetic and political aspects of her writing is its absolute refusal to perform for the white gaze. She neither genuflects to it nor fights it. Instead, her language conjures possibilities for black life to exist and mean in a world without being “thrown against a sharp white background”, in Zora Neale Hurston’s famous words. This refusal of the white gaze opened intellectual space for Morrison to be one of the most important American philosophers of race since W.E.B. DuBois and Anna Julia Cooper, and all of our collective thinking has been enriched by it.

If you had not read Morrison’s work before learning of her passing, there are dozens of possible starting points. In addition to Beloved, you could not go wrong reading Sula, Song of Solomon or A Mercy. You will likely want to read more as soon as you finish one. Just beware the feeling of “finishing” one of her novels. Her work will teach you that an ending is only an ending if you are not looking, listening or otherwise attending carefully enough.

I wrote earlier of one of my favourite sentences Morrison wrote, and I want to end with a word on my favourite character, not only in Morrison’s work but in any fictional world: Pilate Dead in Song of Solomon. Without spoiling Pilate’s story, she is described by another character observing, “without leaving the ground she could fly”. There is no piece of language that has stayed marked in me as vividly as this. What does it mean to fly without ever leaving the ground? I see this as a profound question about what it means to live in the world and make community with others, and I think about it every day. And I think that Morrison was able to approximate this paradox embodied by her fictional character. Without ever leaving the world, she soared and shaped – shapes – it.

Photo Credits: Mike Strasser (Flikr)

Categories: Muslim blogs

Poem: To the Boys Who Carried Out the Ballybrit Mosque Attack

Sat, 03/08/2019 - 14:30

You wish you could waddle
up the Monivea Road like Lord Haw Haw
wearing a scar the length of your jaw
you got fighting communists
but cut yourself shaving once
and didn’t like it.

In the absence of a girl who’ll let
you between her legs
you’d love to invade Russia or Iran
but can’t afford the air fare
so instead smashed some glass.

All you want is a part-time job
in the local concentration camp
but there isn’t one around here
yet, so instead you broke a window
and heroically chucked some books out it.

You once thought of reading a book
to find out why you’re where you are
instead spend the hiatus between
wanks listening to the voices
in the videos on your phone tell you
whose fault your life is.

You needed to be someone
so wrecked a guy’s framed family photographs,
fled sniggering up the hill,
still no one.

This poem follows a gathering of solidarity in Galway on Monday night, after a mosque was attacked and vandalised.

Categories: Muslim blogs