The Sa’ed Atshan interview | 'For more and more queer Palestinians, desire, practice and identity are aligning with each other'
Dr Atshan's book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique was an opportunity to write about the experiences of queer Palestinians who face oppression at multiple levels but rarely have a chance to be heard.
“I am a scholar-educator, I am Palestinian, I am queer, and I am Christian. These parts make me who I am,” says Dr Sa’ed Atshan, author of the book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (2020) published by Stanford University Press. It is a work of politically engaged scholarship and also a deeply personal story. Writing this book helped him learn about his own place in the world, and gave him an opportunity to write about the experiences of queer Palestinians who face oppression at multiple levels but rarely have a chance to be heard.
As a child, he attended the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker institution in Palestine. In 2002, he arrived in the United States to study at Swarthmore College, an institution outside of Philadelphia that was also founded by the Quakers. He graduated with the Edward Said/Audre Lorde Scholar-Activism Award, and went on to study public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Dr Atshan is now an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He is currently spending the 2020-2021 academic year on sabbatical as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Visiting Scholar in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What has been your proudest moment since the book came out and began to circulate among readers?
I feel blessed that my book has been widely read and well received. I have given about 70 book talks over Zoom. The book has been assigned in over 40 courses across the United States in various disciplines — Anthropology, Peace and Conflict Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and more.
A real highlight for me was that my alma mater, Swarthmore College, where I currently also serve as a professor, organised a book talk. So many of my colleagues and students came together to support me and to have an exchange. One of my colleagues, Farid Azfar, who is a Pakistani scholar, was the discussant. Many of the assumptions, and the points of departure that we share intellectually and politically, are common. It was a powerful moment because it allowed us to have a South-South dialogue rather than a discussion approaching these issues through strictly Western, Eurocentric and even Orientalist vantage points.
I did another book talk where the discussant was Gautam Bhan from the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. He read the book so closely and generously. We had this unbelievably generative conversation between a queer Indian scholar and a queer Palestinian scholar, thinking about the intersections between our contexts. It was so rejuvenating and rare! We also have British colonialism in common, and the legacies and reverberations that we continue to grapple with.
Being an anthropologist engaged with the critique of settler colonialism in occupied Palestine, how do you feel about the fact that anthropology itself as a discipline has its origins in colonialism? What does it mean to have an anti-imperialist ethnographic practice?
Even though anthropology was used as a central tool for colonial and imperialist enterprises all over the world, and there are still traces of it in the present, anthropology has also undergone rapid transformations especially with the rise of reflexive postcolonial scholars and native anthropologists committed to decolonising the discipline.
In Palestine, we speak of the Nakba, the 1948 founding of the state of Israel on the land of Palestine. It is described as a catastrophe by Palestinians. It is a source of tremendous trauma and pain and grieving and mourning. It marks the beginning of an ongoing process that has continued now for seven decades thanks to the Israeli state’s campaign of dispossession, displacement and disenfranchisement of the Palestinian native population.
Anthropology allows us, especially through ethnography, to capture the imperialist projects and resistance to imperialism going on in the field. Anthropology reminds us that, in Palestine, we don’t have a postcolonial moment yet. It is still very much under occupation and ongoing colonialism.
How did your ideological commitments and training as a Quaker structure your relationships with interlocutors during fieldwork?
That’s a very insightful question. In Palestine, Christians are a minority. Palestinian Christians are the descendants of the very first Christians in the land where Jesus was born. Bethlehem, his birthplace, is a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Orthodox Christians form the largest Christian community in Palestine, and Quakers are among the smallest Christian communities. Our ancestors converted to Quakerism from Orthodox Christianity.
Being a Palestinian, a queer person, a Christian and a Quaker, I am a minority within a minority within a minority within a minority. And then I belong to the Palestinian diaspora in the United States, the centre of world empire and one of the most racist, anti-Palestinian countries you can think of. I am in the belly of the beast. In terms of global hierarchies of power, I am on the margins of the margins of the margins of the margins.
When you are cognisant of all that, it can catalyse a sense of hopelessness. However, my Quaker faith has helped me transcend those feelings of disempowerment. One of the central tenets of Quakerism is that the light of God is in every human being. There is a radical egalitarianism within the Quaker faith that allows me to see myself as an equal subject to the most oppressive forces in the world.
As a community, we ground ourselves in deep silence and a practice of deep listening. This has helped me be open to different perspectives. This is why recognising the heterogeneity of queer Palestinian experiences, and the legitimacy of every voice, is important to me.
I encountered the terms "Israeli homophobia" and "Palestinian homophobia" in your book. What are the similarities and differences between the two?
Homophobia is not unique to these societies; it exists all over the world and we can see certain commonalities in the way homophobia manifests in Israeli and Palestinian societies. Hypernationalism and religious extremism exacerbate homophobia in both these societies. Coming to differences, Israel as a settler colonial state takes on the project of homonationalism, where it tries to force queer Palestinians to act as collaborators and informants against fellow Palestinians. There are different forces in Palestinian society. Some take on queer liberation as a central component of anti-imperialist struggle but others see these as separate, disconnected struggles.
How do Zionism and Islamophobia affect the lives of queer Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the North American diaspora?
Zionism is the central ideology that supports Israel’s existence as a political entity, and is responsible for seven decades of oppression of the Palestinian people. Zionism has taken on a profoundly militaristic and toxic masculinist nature. As a result, queer Palestinians — Muslims and Christians — are victims of what I describe as “ethno-heteronormativity”. Their mere existence on a quotidian level is a challenge for the Zionist Israeli state, and for patriarchal and homophobic forces within Palestinian and Israeli societies.
If you look at the Palestinian diaspora in North America, the notion that Muslims are the ultimate other is very much a construct that dehumanises them. Israel sees a role for itself in the Global War on Terror led by the United States against the figure of the Islamic extremist who is pathologised and also understood as homophobic. This assumed homophobia is then perceived as central to Islam, and Muslims themselves are regarded as less than human. They are degraded to the point where their killing is justified by the oppressors.
The role of Islam is complicated. On the one hand, Islamophobia is a real force that contributes to the oppression of Palestinians by Israeli forces in Palestine. At the same time, within Palestinian society, there is a kind of Islamic hegemony. Islam structures Palestinian lives in different ways. Conservative and fundamentalist readings of Islam reinforce homophobia, and there is an othering of queer Palestinians because of that.
As a Palestinian living in the US, how do you feel about American complicity in the oppression of Palestinians through financial and diplomatic support for Israel?
It is incredibly painful. In the Palestinian American community, we are struggling to find the words to describe the kinds of psychic violence that this creates for us existentially. The tax dollars that we pay are directly contributing to violence against our own communities, families and loved ones back in Palestine. We are trapped in structures of deep complicity. We have no other choice.
Going back could mean becoming a conscientious objector or a tax evader but that would lead to imprisonment. Many Palestinian Americans, who are living in exile, cannot return to their homeland. Amidst this we have white Christian nationalists telling us to go back where we have come from. Many Palestinian Americans want to be in the US but cannot go to Palestine since the US is destroying our homeland and Israel will not permit Palestinian refugees to return from exile.
As Palestinian Americans, we also have privileges. It is important for us to think about how to utilise these, to give voice to the voiceless, to mobilise resources and humanitarian aid, to lobby and push for change in US foreign policy in Palestine. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman to become a member of the US House of Representatives, has been a tremendous source of hope and inspiration to many of us.
Could you talk a little about how 'queer' as a term of self-identification is deployed by Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
Palestinians who are gender non-conforming or who subscribe to non-normative sexualities are increasingly taking on ‘queer’ as an identity or a political project. There is a difference between desire, practice and identity. One could have a particular set of desires or proclivities that is queer but not necessarily act upon it. Someone else could act upon it but may not have a socio-political identity built around same-sex practices, relationships, love or structures of life. For more and more queer Palestinians, desire, practice and identity are aligning with each other. And there are those for whom queerness becomes a radical political project linked with destabilising all forms of normativity, questioning and chipping away at all forms of oppression, and promoting dignity for all.
We have people on the right as well as the far left arguing that terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer are Western terms and using them implies subjugation to Western sexual imperialism. I argue that queer Palestinians have a right to language and forms of identification that may be Western but are adapted in ways that are indigenous to our own experience. Denying this to us would amount to a kind of discursive disenfranchisement or assault. Email comes to us from the West, and we use it because we find it relevant to our needs. The same can be said of language around queerness. Not everything that emanates from the West is nefarious or problematic.
Most of what I know about queer Palestinian experiences comes from the West Bank and from the diaspora. The queer community in Gaza is very much underground. We have a hard time knowing what they are going through because Israel has made it hell on earth. Two million Palestinians do not have access to basic services such as reliable electricity, water supply and sewage treatment. And within this context, there is Hamas — a fundamentalist group suffocating the people there. I am one of their biggest critics, however it is important to critique them in proportion to the power they hold. That happens to be very little in comparison to the Israeli state.
There are so many question marks about the lives of queer Palestinians in the Gaza Strip because we do not have many data points. Also, the Gaza Strip, unlike the West Bank, continues to have a homophobic law that is the legacy of British and French colonialism.
You have written about how you "had excelled in academia as a way to compensate for the shame of homosexuality." To what extent would you place the onus for this shame on colonialism, religion and culture?
When Western imperialist forces colonised our part of the world, they wanted to punish us for being too tolerant, accepting and celebratory as far as homosexuality was concerned. That had a devastating impact on queer people over time. Theological homophobia thrives in mainstream Muslim and Christian communities in Palestine. The emphasis on shame and honour enforces a normative performance of gender and sexuality. This leads to a lot of internalised homophobia.
Today, at the age of 36, I have come a long way. I own my queerness with pride. It has given me a richness of life and perspective. There was a time when I ardently wished that I could be straight so that life would be easier. But now I wouldn’t want any of that even if it was possible to be straight. Life would be so boring. Also, the empathy and compassion that I have developed, the solidarity with the downtrodden that I have because of my own marginalised position — these are things that I do not wish to lose.
How does Israel's tourism industry participate in promoting the idea that Arabs are essentially homophobic?
Gay tourism in Tel Aviv is a prime example of pinkwashing, wherein Israel tries to deflect attention from all its human rights violations under the guise of advancing LGBTQ rights. There is a wide range of queer experiences in Israel/Palestine but the Israeli state spends a lot of money in promoting the image of Tel Aviv as a safe bubble for queer people in a sea of homophobia — the whole of the Middle East. This tourism industry is a trap.
While writing this book, what gave you the courage to address the dogma and self-righteousness that thrive within activist communities?
There is a radical purism within certain sections of many progressive social movements. They believe that they are the most radical, and therefore morally superior to everyone else. They are intolerant of those who disagree in matters of ideology or strategy, so they police and even excommunicate even fellow activists. They contribute to what I call an empire of critique, which is counter-productive to social movement growth. Instead of purity politics, we ought to move towards radical pluralism. That will help us achieve our true potential.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect
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