Monday, April 30, 2007

FACEBOOK's racist, homophobic demands of censorship, an interview with poet ASHRAF OSMAN 

(this e-mail interview conducted between 4/27/07 and 4/30/07)

Ashraf, just a few days ago the Internet site FACEBOOK asked an Arab LBTG (lesbian, bi, trans, gay) group to dissolve due to pressure from certain Arab governments (most notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt). Tell us about this situation please?

First, I should probably describe Facebook for people not familiar with the site. Facebook is a social networking site, much like its larger, perhaps better known rival, MySpace. I frankly haven't been on Facebook that long—only around a month and a half—but I was happy to find, when I first signed up, a larger number of old Lebanese friends from school and college there than I was able to find on MySpace. It was, in a way, a virtual reunion of sorts. I was also glad to find a presence of gay Lebanese and Arab groups on Facebook. I had decided to be rather out in my profile, as I had been increasingly in my cyber-life, with pictures of me and my partner amongst my photos, and my affiliations with the above groups clearly visible on my page. I found it to be a good opportunity and means to come out to large numbers of my old friends, for I do believe that is the surest way to affect change in attitudes towards homosexuality in Lebanon and the Arab world.

Much to my surprise, however, I received this week a message from the administrator of a group that I am a member of called "Arab LBTGay (Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual and Gay)". The message was to all the members of the group that Facebook has requested the group be shutdown due to "an official complaint from the Saudi government, the Egyptian government and other Arab governments that do not want to be mentioned." Supposedly, the group has "violated the terms of conduct" by "creating a global group that is not allowed in some regions," and these governments were now threatening to block Facebook in their countries. Facebook suggested creating a new closed group, under a new name, that would exclude people from the above-mentioned countries, adding "you will have to kick any Saudi, Egyptian, Kuwaiti or even Emirati that happens to join or we pick out for you" (thus naming the two other governments that did not want to be named, all good old allies of "The Land of Freedom").

At that point, the administrator of the group and I decided to get the word out about what we thought was a strident injustice, and created, along with 2 other friends, a petition on Facebook to oppose the group being shutdown. We are aware of the unfortunate catch of the situation, that even if we did manage to keep the group up and those countries decided to go ahead and block Facebook (as Saudi Arabia plans to do as of June 1 st) then we'd be losing the LGBT people in those countries still. And unfortunately, we aren't hearing much from those people at this time; I am sure fear has set in, knowing that their online activities are being closely watched. And if we do hear back, it's something along the lines of "You could get killed... I am worried about you guys" (the title of an actual e-mail I received yesterday). We are currently in the process of contacting LGBT advocacy groups for advice and assistance, and hoping to be able to negotiate something with Facebook. But it is turning into a trying exercise in pragmatism and compromise that keeps on reminding me of that quote from Orwell's Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

This whole situation is horrifying! Ashraf you and your friends have shown courage, and many of us out here have recognized this, and will do everything we can to help the cause. It's times like this when so many lives can be affected for the good just through the fight alone.

I worry a great deal about young queers when things like this happen. The LTBG community continues to have the highest suicide rate, and drug and alcohol abuse. When I worked at the queer bookstore in Philadelphia I was constantly confronted by the great sorrow filling many of the lives walking through the door. It feels important to openly fight oppression for the general health of everyone. The importance of saying NO together is crucial. No one need feel alone.

Can you tell us what we can do to help Ashraf? There must be some things everyone and anyone reading this could do at this very moment to help the struggle. What do you suggest people do right now?

Conrad, yes, the situation is quite awful, but it could be worse, much worse, and it was. And you, and a lot of people I don't even know, are already doing a lot to help. By doing this, by reading, by being aware. There obviously isn't an easy answer, but if I were to underline one thing it would be hope. There is still a lot of reason to hope. As I was telling a friend of mine the other day, I have seen in the last 10 years things happening, in terms of gay rights, globally, that I didn't expect to see in my lifetime. And things are getting better.

It might be difficult to see that sometimes, but they are. I did not think I'd live to see a legal gay rights organization in Lebanon, and now there is. There is still a lot of work to be done, obviously, and a lot of people fear that as the issue gains visibility in the Arab world, resistance too would increase, at least initially. And I think this issue is important not only for its own sake, but because in a sense it is a litmus test for society at large. I think the Arab and Islamic world is going through its Dark Ages now, with the rise of religious fundamentalism. (The situation is certainly not helped by the complications of neo-colonialism, but that is a topic larger than this discussion.) And there could be no release from the dark clutches of ignorant fundamentalism without the embrace of secular humanist ideals at large, including gay rights.

I think one of the things that would affect change in this regards most precipitously is the media; there simply isn't enough presence of good media representation in the Arab world. I am just dying to have my mom see "Six Feet Under", but I simply cannot find it subtitled in Arabic! And yet there is an obvious thirst in the Arab world; you can feel people clutching at anything they can get their hands on, even if it's sub-par, like the book and movie that were best-sellers in the Arab world recently, "The Yacobian Building". Books are another great example: even the great and courageous Arab writers these days, such as Rabih Alameddine, write in English and their books are not even available in Arabic (to not worry about them being banned). I think the availability of such great material in Arabic would affect a world of change, and I think investing in making that happen would be a much more efficient and cost-effective way of spreading tolerant ideals than war.

Ultimately, I don't mean to belittle the oppression or suffering going on, but oppression and suffering could lead to despair, which could be utterly disabling. And there's no reason to despair. I made it from the southern suburbs of Beirut all the way here, and I'm telling you, there's reason to hope.

This is an excellent message, thank you, and your optimism in this bleak time is strengthening. Is it helpful for more people to join this FACEBOOK petition though? In a matter of no time the group petition membership grew to 800. If this is not a message to FACEBOOK, then what is, right? Is there an easy way to tell people reading this to look for the petition? The one problem though is that in order to read any links, or join the petition, one would have to be a member of FACEBOOK first, which, for those who don't know, is free and easy to sign onto. But on that petition page you and your friends have also made available contact to FACEBOOK directly, in order to send complaints about this censorship.

When you first sent me poems when I was co-editing EOAGH Issue #3: Queering Language, it was very clear that you were bringing to the table a perspective unique from most queer poetry. You have an unwavering voice that strikes the reader in an instant, making space to measure emotion, senses, desires, with care in each word. Who are your favorite poets? And how is your poetry received in Lebanon?

Conrad, of course it is helpful for more people to join the petition; it does send a very strong message to Facebook. But you are right, right now the petition is limited to Facebook users; though anyone can contact Facebook at the following links to send complaints about this censorship:
http://uillinois.facebook.com/help.php?t ab=suggest"
In case Facebook doesn't back down, then we will definitely be taking the petition to the open web and the media.

Thank you for your generous description of my poetry. It is perhaps the immediacy of the outsider's perspective: an outsider to poetry (in the sense that I did not study poetry in college), as well as the culture I live in in many ways. And while I adore some of the more or less recognized names in poetry ( Sylvia Plath, Mark Strand, Mahmoud Darwish, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garci­a Lorca , Marie Howe, Naomi Shihab Nye ), I have to admit that some of my earlier (and therefore perhaps more damning) influences is the poetry of French chansons, the like of Aznavour and Dalida. And in them there is the immediacy and lack of pretense of pop culture coupled with a certain lyricism (and perhaps more than a bit of drama), and most importantly humanity: the human in its most fragile and therefore exalted. (Here is a link to a post about my favorites and influences from a poetics blog, called Poetship, that I keep with my good friend and poet Katy Acheson:
http://poetship.blogspot.com/2006/02/archs-list_19.html" )

As for the reception of my poetry in Lebanon, I would have to say that--aside from the blogosphere--my poetry is virtually unknown there. I actually haven't been writing poetry seriously for that long now (only about 5 years now), and all the poetry I have published in print has been here in the US, mostly regional. I started writing poetry in Philadelphia, and while much of my poetry is about the dichotomy of exile--and therefore about Lebanon in a way--its primary venue has been Philadelphia, which has been very generous to me, in terms of readings and opportunities. But another reason I am sure is the language barrier. Most of the poetry I write is in English; and while English is fairly commonly spoken in Lebanon, it is not the native language, and therefore does not have the traditional venues of publication there.

The reception of my poetry in Lebanese circles online has been mostly warm and supportive. I have received the occasional hate comment on my more explicit poems, such as the following comment on my poem Nudity: "That is the most disgusting piece of poetry. I don't know even how this qualifies to be presented!" (I have taken the liberty to delete it from my blog since, as it is my space, and I am intolerant of hate speech on it. And I have written a post relating to this, and another related homophobic online incident, at the Lebanese Blogger Forum.

http://lebanonheartblogs.blogspot.com/2006/05/some-things-never-change.html" ) Still, I do hope to publish my first book through a publisher that is available in the Lebanese market, as that is an important factor for me.

Can we assume your first book in Lebanese would contain such poems as "Nudity," "Sexualis," and others? Forgive my complete ignorance of Lebanese poetry, but has an openly queer Lebanese poet published a book? And if so who is that poet, and what can you tell us about them?

Some people reading this interview might be thinking "WHY THE HELL is he asking Ashraf about his poems when we're in the middle of a conversation about free speech with FACEBOOK!?" One of the more important aspects of a fight for queer rights as critical as this one is becoming with FACEBOOK is visibility, and your being so unapologetically OUT in your poems is very much an important factor in the greater struggle for everyone. Also I am a firm believer that poetry REALLY CAN change the world.

I'm almost certain my first book, even if released in Lebanon, will not be in Arabic but in English, since this is the language I write in predominantly. But I certainly do intend to have my openly gay poems in it; I do not intend to step back into any closets, thank you very much! I'm frankly not sure if there are any published contemporary Lebanese poets. There certainly is a tradition of queer Arabic poetry since the Golden Ages of Arabic poetry, most notably the poetry of Abu Nuwas. There definitely are queer contemporary Lebanese novels, such as those of Rabih Alameddine and Tony Hanania, both of whom also writes in English and reside outside of Lebanon. But I was very happy to learn of a queer poetry reading in Beirut when I was there recently. So, if there isn't, it can't possibly be too far behind!

And I agree with you absolutely, that visibility is a large part of the fight, which is why I was very happy about the creation of Helem, the first legal and registered queer rights organization in the Arab world! And they certainly have been very visible (as you can see from the pictures on their Facebook group) and working very hard against immense odds, and deserve all the support they can get.

My dear friend Magdalena Zurawski e-mailed me earlier today from San Francisco to let me know about the powerful memorial service held yesterday for queer-trans poet/activist kari edwards. kari's vital voice lives on in the poems, breathtakingly defiant! And I know with no doubt that if kari was still alive she would be part of this struggle you and your friends are going through with the racist, homophobic actions of FACEBOOK, and these tyrannical Arab governments in question. The last time I saw kari she was surprised to find out that my cousin Jonas's story was part of The Laramie Project. We talked about Jonas and his friends confronting the Phelps Clan who were picketing Matthew Shephard's funeral with signs like, "THE ONLY GOOD FAG IS A DEAD FAG!" On your FACEBOOK petition page there is a man named Tarek who has signed-on in order to write the message, "GOD SAYS KILL FAGS!" I am assuming (but not 100% certain) Tarek represents fundamentalist Muslim homophobia, while the Phelps's represent fundamentalist Christian homophobia. 25% of Americans are now said to be born again Christians. And while we can't say that all born again Christians are homophobic, the nation's president is a born again Christian fundamentalist who has openly waged war against the queer community as we fight for our rights as citizens. And although the United States government does not directly execute and torture queers as some Arab nations do, the open contempt held against the queer community from the highest seats of governmental power indirectly sanctions the continued hatred and violence against our community. In fact the ease with which FACEBOOK asked you to dissolve your group shows how pervasive this casual, national hatred really is.

But at the same time it is much better in some parts of the United States for queers than it is in a nation like Saudi Arabia today. You recently said to me that you moved here from Lebanon to live a freer life. You have also said how difficult it is being so far away from your family, especially during the most recent Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Your emboldening intelligence and hope is inspiring. What can you relay to queer Arabs who might be struggling with fear or despair today?

Conrad, from all that I've heard about Kari—during both "Queering Language" readings, Frank Sherlock's benefit, and from you—I really regret that I didn't get the chance to know her. Yes, it is defiant spirits like that that make a difference in the world. And it's certainly true that homophobia is alive and well in the US still; but as you suggested, it is all relative. Even within the Arab world, the situation for homosexuals in Lebanon, for instance, is much better than it is in Saudi Arabia. And yet, it is better still in the US, and perhaps even better in many countries in western Europe. In any case, I don't feel that I am in a position to preach to anyone. In a lot of ways, I realize that the decision I have made to immigrate to the US is a very selfish one. I had made a promise to myself, back when I was in Lebanon, that I will not be a victim, that I will not sacrifice my life for any cause, that—first and foremost—I want to live my life fully, and if in the course of that I am able to aid the causes I believe in, then so be it. I was aware back then, when I was an undergrad at the American University of Beirut—before the internet, following the news of gay rights in the US and the world on microfilm and microfiche archives in the library basement—of the (seemingly inevitable) "sacrificial generation" stage in every struggle for rights. What I wasn't aware of is that I can't possibly live a full life if I exclude such an essential struggle out of my life. And after all, it is not so clear cut. But I'm not saying that I did the right thing, or that everyone should do what I did—far from it! I realize that I am very privileged to be able to transplant my life as such, that not everybody has the means or opportunity to do so—nor should they. If more people in Lebanon did what I did, Helem wouldn't have come into being. Nor am I saying that what I did is the easy way out; uprooting oneself as such leaves one mostly without roots, always yearning for somewhere else, thinking and rethinking what might have been. But I guess that is life, no matter what we do. I have been around long enough now to realize that we don't all get to do what we thought we were meant to, but short enough to believe that perhaps that is not such a bad thing. I guess what I'm trying to say, hopefully without sounding too pedantic about it, is that in a way we all fit into place, we all do our part—whether it is what we thought we were intended to do or not. And in the end, I think, it'll end well.

Last but certainly not least, Conrad, thank you so much for the opportunity, and for doing this

(you can see Ashraf's blog "arch.memory" HERE)

(details on forthcoming film on queer Muslims "A Jihad for Love" HERE)

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