Artist and designer Marwan Kaabour is exploring what it means to be queer and Arab through the Instagram account @takweer_
Takweer in Arabic is to make something spherical, or, poetically ‘to create a world’. It also sounds like ‘queer’ in English, and so the combined English and Arabic meaning – according to Marwan Kaabour, Lebanese designer and founder of the Instagram account @takweer_ – is “to see the world through a queer gaze”.
In practice, @takweer_ involves Kaabour sifting through classical Arabic poetry and literature, watching reruns of his favourite childhood Lebanese sitcoms, or exploring the classics of modern Egyptian cinema, all the while searching for the often-fleeting moments where Arab queerness has come to light.
Be it uncovering queer personalities at the heart of the Islamic Empire, recounting the stories of Arab musicians who defied gender norms, or celebrating the many queer characters in Arabic film, poetry, and literature, @takweer_ is a powerful response to the popular myth that the Arab world is an inherently conservative, sexist, and homophobic place.
“That’s bullshit,” says Kaabour. “Arabs and Muslims, like the Greeks and Romans before them, have always had non-normative gender and sexual practices.”
“Caliph Al-Amin, the 9th-century leader of the entire Islamic world was known for his sexual escapades with men and eunuchs. His mother was so scared he wouldn’t produce an heir, that she dressed his concubines up as men so he would sleep with them. This is documented. It’s part of our history.”
Not all content on @takweer_ is recognisably queer, but ask any queer Arab, says Kaabour, and they’ll know. “Sherihan is an Egyptian singer-dancer, the most flamboyant person ever who performed on the Ramadan TV show Fawazeer. It’s the most camp thing you can imagine. She’s a queer icon, and she doesn’t know it. My childhood was in the 90s, and Sherihan was the goddess.”
Elsewhere, @takweer_ also provocatively encourages queer or homoerotic readings of otherwise ‘normal’ images. “Banana Republic” is the tongue-in-cheek caption for a photo of two men in traditional dress sharing the phallic fruit.
Beyond serving as an archival resource, Kaabour wants @takweer_ to be a space that truly belongs to queer Arabs in the region and diaspora. “That’s why having the page in both English and Arabic was really important for me,” he explained.
“I remember going out in Beirut to a legendary gay club called Acid, encountering a community which had its own culture and lexicon. In hindsight I realise this was a whole parallel queer universe to the globalised one that currently prevails. Today I see young drag queens in Beirut emerging, which is fantastic, but their references, their language, seem to mostly revolve around the world that RuPaul has built. In a way it’s positive. But it’s important to understand our own journeys and references as queer Arabs too.”
The page has grown steadily since its inception, amassing over 5,000 followers mostly from the Arab world, but Kaabour has bigger ambitions: “Instagram is a space to put these things out in the world, to use as a springboard for more complex, collaborative and thorough projects. The captions aren’t enough to tell the whole story.”