We Have Always Been Fabulous: Fragments of an Unfinished Manifesto
“Because we can’t know in advance, but only retrospectively if even then, what is queer and what is not, we gather and combine eclectically, dragging a bunch of cultural debris around us and stacking it in idiosyncratic piles.”
#1. A Queer Document is a Palimpsest in the Making
To embark on an Egyptian queer archival project could be a dangerous undertaking. It is not only so because the notion of “queerness” is constantly evolving, expanding, and rejecting a definitive strictly delineated identity, but also because any attempt to trace the cultural and historical contours of “Egyptianness” could easily fall into traps of reduction, exclusion, or purism. How can we then create archives that could potentially carry both labels without essentializing either of the two identities? How could such archives encourage multiplicity, reject coherence, and embrace archival methods where the terms themselves are constantly questioned, including the notion of the archive itself?
The possibility of a queer archive, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, is further complicated by the systematic erasure of traces of queer existences, not only by authorities and self-appointed guardians of morality (المواطنين الشرفاء), but also by queer subjects themselves, since material evidence of queerness has historically been used to “penalize and discipline queer desires, connections, and acts” (Muñoz 2009, 65). Therefore, any queer archival attempt that relies exclusively on physical traces or evidentiary regimes would be ignoring by default the vast spectrum of clandestine encounters, ephemeral traces, undocumented emotions, fleeting gestures, and coded languages that characterize queer existences and that a truly queer document needs to reflect.
With that being said, and if we submit to the assumption that the trace is the “final epistemological presupposition” (Ricœur 1988, 116) of any archive, it is hard to imagine that such a literal, narrow understanding of the trace as the physical evidence of queer existence would make a document inevitably queer. Instead, it is the affective invisible traces retrospectively imprinted on a document by the queer subject that make it truly a queer intricately crafted imaginary palimpsest, which includes—in addition to the original document—the emotions it evoked, the associations it elicited, the various readings it enabled and the connections it made possible with other documents that could then, with or without prior agreement, come together to generate a truly queer archive.
#2. It Is Time for the Queer Archive to Come Out of the Celluloid Closet
Given the constraints of tracing the complexities of queer lives within the parameters of the “physical trace,” many Egyptian queer archival attempts, whether or not they have been labeled as such, resorted to mapping representations of homosexuality and/or transgender identities in mainstream cultural productions as accounts of a queer existence that has been historically contested and often denied. Many of these studies and curated film programs focus particularly on queer representations in Egyptian cinema, given the elevated position it continues to occupy within the fabric of the allegedly collective memory of the nation.
Among the images that immediately come to mind and that have been perpetually cited by scholars of LGBTQI+ representation in Egyptian cinema are Ismail Yassin’s or Abdel Moneim Ibrahim’s crossdressing scenes in Al Anesa Hanafi (1954) or Sukkar Hanem (1960) respectively, or scenes that include gay or transgender characters or allude to homosexual desires in films such as Hammam El Malatily (1973), The Yacoubian Building (2006), or more recently Family Secrets (2014).
The inclusion of queer characters in many of these films, with a few exceptions most notably in the films of Yousry Nasrallah, is usually complimented with a comic twist, a moral judgement, a dramatic ending, or at the very best a call for compassion with the queer character, whose circumstances have led them to this inevitably miserable fate: a position that comforts the homophobic spectator and that makes these—and only these—representations palatable for the heteronormative target audience. Why then keep reproducing the same studies about the same films over and over, granting these representations a power they do not deserve?
To be perfectly clear, I do not wish to belittle the value of representation in informing attitudes towards queerness, or to play down the ways it shapes not just how others see us but also how we see ourselves as queer subjects. But to grant these problematic film representations the status of “queer documents” or to dignify them with further studies is to simply remain content with the mere acknowledgment of our existence, regardless of how disturbing this acknowledgment might be, and to give up our agency as a community to speak for ourselves or represent our own history and presence.
#3. Queer Documents Have Always Been There, We Just Didn’t Know They Were Queer
Despite the abundance of the aforementioned representation studies, there remains little investigation of forms, aesthetics, and languages that have gradually come to acquire a unique value among queer counterpublics, not because of how they represent a queer identity as such, but rather because of the complex ways these counterpublics have come to identify with them, regardless of whether or not they were originally intended for a queer audience, or had anything to do with queer representation in the first place.
Rather than focusing on how—or if at all—we have been represented, why not shift the attention to a prospective canon of images, sounds, and texts that have shaped common frameworks of memory, as well as linguistic, aesthetic, and performative registers for Egyptian queer communities? Why not revisit snippets of pop culture products that have accidentally created an eclectic idiosyncratic archive-in-the-making of costumes we adored, gestures we imitated, songs we learned by heart, dance numbers we memorized, divas we identified with, jokes and phrases we appropriated and integrated into daily conversations, drag performances, and eventually social media memes?
I am talking here about cinema, television, and music productions that have eventually acquired their queer status not because they were inherently queer per se, but rather because of how they have been received and reterritorialized (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 320) over the years by queer Arab consumers, imprinted on their memories and embodied in their movements (see Taylor 2003). This shifts the focus of the archival project from the products themselves to the spectators and listeners, who found “something” queer in these images and sounds, passionately recycled them and wove the seemingly disconnected pieces to construct their own vocabularies, narratives, performative acts, and queer worlds out of them.
The proposed archive, therefore, is not about the images or the sounds themselves, but rather about the fabulous unorthodox afterlives we, as queer Egyptian consumers, carved for them, and would accordingly acquire its “Egyptian” status not out of a nationalist impulse, but rather based on what has been made available to an Egyptian queer pop culture consumer at different points in time regardless of the origin of the product, singer, or actor.
Think of Sabah’s dresses we were fascinated by, Sherihan’s Fawazeer choreographies we repeatedly performed alone in our rooms, Soheir EL Bably’s jokes in Rayya we Skeena we recited in our conversations, Nabila Ebaid’s comebacks from Al Raqesa Wal Seyasy we shamelessly reenacted and Samira Said’s songs we imagined singing to our own lovers: images and sounds that we might not have known at the time how or why they were queer, but whose circulation among queer counterpublics—with a queer reading as the cherry on top—gave them a prolonged afterlife (see Siegel 2017).
#4. A Queer Archive Knows How to Disidentify
But how can one think through tropes within cultural production that retain a significant value to queer counterpublics when they in themselves continuously reinforce heteronormative, and in some cases even homophobic, worldviews? How could we identify with Nabila Ebaid’s character in Al Raqesa Wal Seyasy despite the film’s problematic depiction of homosexuals? How could we allow ourselves to breathe afterlives into music performed by singers we knew were homophobic, or films that we, like Vito Russo, “knew better than anybody how badly [they] treated queers, but still loved them”?
To acknowledge these pop culture products as raw material for a queer archive despite all of this is definitely not a call to uncritically ignore their problematic aspects, or to “willfully evacuate [their] politically dubious and shameful components,” but rather to learn to disidentify with them as José Esteban Muñoz proposes:
Disidentification is meant to be descriptive of the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship. (Muñoz 1999, 4)
In our case, the queer spectator/listener resists unproductive “good dog/bad dog criticism” (Muñoz 1999, 9) impulses and cleverly recycles these works, reinventing them from a queer positionality to carve out a world that might have been composed out of selected images, sounds, and words, and yet does not fully resemble any of the works they originally belonged to. Just like the original manuscript of a palimpsest is scraped or washed off—albeit not completely effaced—to allow for the writing of new texts on top, the queer document is here created by dismantling, piecing together, and writing over that which already exists.
#5. Straight Tools Will Never Build a Queer Archive
Perhaps if we embrace these works that continue to inform, rather than represent, our culturally specific queer identities, and allow ourselves to own what is rightfully ours, we could be getting closer to the conception of a truly queer—as opposed to an LGBT—archive, one that does not seek to define a sexual identity, but rather unsettle it, one that—much like a queer identity—is constantly evolving, whose limitations are unclear and whose possibilities are endless.
The proposed archive would, therefore, be built upon the “remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor” (Muñoz 2009, 62). It would be an embodied archive of “gestures, movement, emotions, talk, and repertoires that reconfigure the what and the where of the archive” (Morris and Rawson 2013, 78), one that employs forms and techniques that have been left out of archival practices, much like queerness has been historically left out of sexual categories.
To think that such an archive could simply be conceived through normative archival structures, processes, and methodologies of collection and categorization would defeat the entire purpose of the project, since there is nothing about any of these pop culture products that is de facto queer per se. Perhaps if we manage to fully project our queer selves onto the documents as well as the archival process itself, we could be on the verge of a fabulous, palimpsestic, constantly evolving archive that connects the lives of thousands of queers who might never have met before, but who remain till this day connected through invisible networks of common references, shared emotions, and silent gasps.
This text could not have been possible without the workshop space provided by Arsenal—Institute for Film & Video Art 2019-2020, the workshop guests and participants, students at Humboldt University’s Center for Trans-disciplinary Gender Studies, the conversations with Ismail Fayed, Kinda Hassan, Carine Doumit, Marc Siegel, Alia Ayman, Iskandar Abdalla, Daniel Kupferberg, Lama El Khatib, and the cast and crew of “Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?”
Crimp, Douglas. 1992. “Right on, Girlfriend!” Social Text 33: 2–18.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.
Morris III, Charles E., and K. J. Rawson. 2013. “Queer Archives/Archival Queers.” In Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Michelle Ballif, 74–89. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.
———. 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ricœur, Paul. 1988. “Archives, Documents, Traces.” In Time and Narrative Vol. III. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Russo, Vito. 1981. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper Perennial.
Siegel, Marc. 2017. “The Secret Lives of Images.” In The State of Post-Cinema Tracing the Moving Image in the Age of Digital Dissemination, edited by Malte Hagener, Vinzenz Hediger, and Alena Strohmaier, 195–209. London: Macmillan.
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.
Warner, Michael. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge: Zone Books.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 In reference to Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981).
 I first encountered the term “counterpublics” in Warner (2002).
 For meme examples, see the Instagram account: Takweer تكوير / Exploring queer narratives in Arab history and popular culture @takweer_.