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Islam LGBTQ Personal Writing Projects Sudan Politics U.K. Politics

Modern Prayers: A Companion Guide

This article intends to be a companion to my work ‘Modern Prayers’ commissioned by Out and About: Queering the Museum at RAMM, Exeter, 2021.

Another way of saying history is written by the victors is that history is denied to the oppressed.

I grapple with this a lot, especially when museums have a huge task in modern times of not only preserving history but a responsibility to actively find out what was ignored or forced into hiding.

Queer histories are one of those blank spaces.

I was drawn to the necklace taken during the Nile expedition from a Sudanese soldier in 1885 when I looked through the online collection at the RAMM. I am – still today and through the months of the commission – fascinated by it because it is wrong, but only upon a second glance. It passes at first, blending into a normalcy. When you examine it though you find it falsely labelled – even taking rosary to be an approximation and not intended to associate the necklace with Catholicism the beads do not count high or few enough to be a misbaha, used to count the 99 names of Allah.

You always know when you have a good project when it plagues you. I spent a whole weekend reaching out to my Sudanese relatives and friends and they too could make no sense of it; my father said it is a fraud, not genuine Sudanese at all.

78 beads with 21 missing pieces – it neatly reflects how queerness is a missing element of our histories, both in the UK and in Sudan, as well as the sloppy way the history of those under British rule was treated during colonialism.

I want to note here that a lot of the questions I have around the treatment of the prayer beads are something I place in the historic period and not something I see as coming from the modern RAMM. I think it is likely that the prayer beads were broken at some point in someone’s personal possession and that information was not handed over to the museum when they were donated. I think it’s important for people to remember that we often have a complicated task in modern times of preserving and maintaining history when – either through carelessness or maliciousness – a lot of key information that should have been handed down hasn’t.

There are similar issues with museums in Sudan, where a lot of old Nubian relics weren’t treated well in the past for a combination of factors including religious prejudice due to the former government’s Arabisation drive, and only now is there really a push to properly preserve these important artefacts. Part of my intentional inclusion in the piece of my atrocious Arabic is a reflection of that – why should I be ashamed of my language skills when my family have lost their mother tongue, and relics of times gone by were allowed for decades to be swallowed in sand?

What is in the modern museums hands is how they choose to seek out that missing knowledge in modern times and who they ask to help them with that. Museums tend to reflect what society finds important to preserve and it is vital that more museums invert that process and take a proactive approach of adding nuance and uncovering hidden aspects of our past.

In the UK QTIPOC have a unique experience compared to white LGBTQ people, especially with our relationship to history. Many of us come from places that were under British colonial rule and experience marginalisation within both mainstream culture and mainstream queer life. I think prayer beads and I think of my own prayers for a sense of home, and how so many of us have nostalgia for a past that shares our fullness but no way to learn about or embrace it.

A lot of time with queerness people want to talk about the future. I am interested in the pasts that were denied. I am interested in the fact that the historical language of my fathers side – Nobiin/Mahas – was almost wiped out of common use in a few generations and yet holds so many fascinating aspects that would be considered futuristic by some; for instance there are no gendered pronouns and folk tales abound with stories of women stealing the skins of men to live new lives. I am interested in learning how exactly generation after generation of LGBTQ people have lived in shadows, and how they thrived as well.

There are five chapters to my piece. The first two look at crimes brought with colonialism and with those who originally claimed our history as theirs to filter before being passed down. Next I expore our erasure from history and then the role of us as rememberers. Finally I seek to reassure that there is still joy and revelry to be had as we continue to rebuild our pasts.

Coming from a place where these queer histories and those of other minority groups are regularly erased, from our personal stories right down to the languages we speak, it feels important to bring to light just how much of our past does not show up in formal records. I hope that by being part of such a project we can begin dialogues, not only here, but in other countries about how to tackle these blank spaces.

Acknowledgements

Firstly thank you so much to Dr Jana Funke, Natalie McGrath, and Eleanor Coleman for their help and support during this process.

Secondly a major thank you to the RAMM and the University of Exeter for commissioning this work as part of Out and About: Queering the Museum, and to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for investing in this fantastic project!

All music I was kindly able to source through https://www.free-stock-music.com and tracks are listed below in the order they appear in the piece. One of the things that was important to me was to have the strong sense of drums throughout as it drew from the ceremonies the Dervish’s hold in Omdurman each Friday where they spin and chant to obtain a closeness to God. There is something in the rhythm and intensity of the beat that makes you feel a oneness and it was that I wanted to tap into and how through time it has faded away.

Ambient Bongos by Alexander Nakarada https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Mirage by Hayden Folker https://soundcloud.com/hayden-folker
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Bumbumchack by Alwin Brauns https://soundcloud.com/alwinmusik
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Last Promise by Nettson https://soundcloud.com/nettson
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Luminance by Ghostrifter Official https://soundcloud.com/ghostrifter-official
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Categories
General Politics Islam Political Debate

Sorrow for Paris, France, and Everyone Everywhere

Yesterday I stayed up all night waiting for news from friends. What happened in Paris is almost incomprehensible – large scale rapid and sporadic attacks, bombs, and then a hostage and siege situation. I send my thoughts and my love through a screen and feel so helpless.

Time has shifted how terrorism operates, now designed in the West to generate maximum hysteria and misinformation. I spoke about it briefly on Twitter. The attack was similar to the Mumbai Model where terrorists pulsed through the city creating a situation that is hard (perhaps one might even say almost impossible) for police to initially manage. Essentially it is guerilla warfare transposed to a Western urban policing situation where the cops are mainly trained to deal with local small-scale beats and large crowd control focused on protests. Hitting a huge variety of locations sporadically makes it complicated to capture gunmen at the beginning as policing is more designed for follow-up checks rather that interventions. This ensures dominance of the 24 news cycle, social media, and the theatre of watching an ever increasing death toll. After such an attack the number of gunmen vary wildly with different reports, and a general panic sets in for days as people worry about loose gunmen, second stages, and copy-cat attacks.

I spent last night staying away from most feeds, restricting myself to prevent feeling more tight and sick than I already was. Each new piece of information confirmed was a new bit of horror. Last night I furiously debating my fears over what different parties claims of responsibility might mean with regards to the MENA region. I spoke with people who said Friday the 13th was chosen for its symbolism, others that the important thing was it was the date for the France vs. Germany match, prompting speculation that Germany is “next” and that the plan was even designed to kill on a much larger scale but that parts failed. This is part of the play, to make it the topic for days and weeks as we worry about how our lives will slowly change, even those of us who are not in France.

In the coming days there will likely be “reprisal” attacks against those suspected of being Muslim and/or migrants. We have a duty to speak out about them too, on top of mourning the dead like we are now. The attackers – regardless of which group claims ultimate responsibility – want to drive this wedge further down, and to bait far right groups. And it will work, it always does. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks my mother begged me to promise that if someone approached me in the street I would speak Spanish and then run away.

They don’t just use bombs these days – they use our minds against us too. Terrorism tries to make us hate just as much as it tries to make us scared. This must be resisted most of all.

Categories
General Politics Islam Political Debate

I Just Found Out Someone I Once Knew Joined ISIS and Now I Have Feelings

I was working on a different story to put out this evening but instead, during the course of my day, I came across the news that a former high-school classmate of mine has run off to Syria. I scrolled down the article of yet another collection of young people to cross the Turkish border and saw a face I recognised. It feels curious, this half-remembered person now etched forever online as a radical “Islamist” going to join a swathe of fighters in their cause to bring the glory of what they see as a true Islamic state. It is so foreign to the versions of Islam that – at least I think – we were both exposed to when we were young as the “real” Islam. I still don’t quite understand why, and that confusion is so much stronger than that I had after all the other similar articles I have read over this year.

As a friend remarked though, these things do take time. The conversion of someone’s beliefs doesn’t happen overnight – it is a slow process, and one that by its slow nature may go unnoticed, with the changes being too gradual to pick up the deadly shift in time. Perhaps they were yearning for adventure, acceptance, and the security of an authority figure? Perhaps they merely wanted to aid people in hospitals and ISIS/ISIL weren’t part of the equation when the decision was made? Perhaps everyone that goes to fight in Syria is just as inherently evil as the media makes out? We can’t look at intent and know it for certain. We just guess from the clues left behind.

Those snap judgements I can’t make, because I’m a product of an education and a time where dubious wars were waged through much of my childhood. It’s quite a general opinion that we maybe shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, and even during the lead up  to the conflict in 2003 there were large-scale protests against doing so in the UK. A common refrain we hear regarding young people who go out to Syria is that they are twisted because they should know how terrible these people are. Yet over time the media itself has become know to be less trustworthy, and in many cases is an establishment cheerleader so I can certainly see how a charismatic person can point out to those open enough that perhaps the West are simply smearing what they fear rather than being impartial. I obviously think that ISIS are awful, no doubt in my mind that they are a twisted and twist a religion that I have know through my life to be a wonderful source of humanity for many people, so I still think that people aren’t forgiven for not taking a moment to properly think about what they actually do and then not head out. However part of combating threats like these is understanding where they are rooted, and in a country where we are still in a scandal over the widespread sexual abuse perpetrated and covered up by both the media and political institutions there are certainly spaces for those with their own agendas to exploit that doubt.

The trouble with ISIS is that the more we frame it as an issue of average Muslims, the more we create the sort of environment that recruiters work well in. If I feel accepted in a country it’s hard for me to take issue with it or seek a kinship outside of it – if alternatively people are blaming me for terrible things I have nothing to do with, I’ll start to doubt my country’s “kind” nature and perhaps start to doubt my country’s portrayal of those it claims are in the same group as me. Muslims are not ISIS members waiting to emerge from their sleeper positions. They’re just Muslims. Some belong to ISIS. Some occasionally drink hot chocolate with me whilst discussing the value of Beyoncé in feminism. Like, it’s a pretty broad category of thought to create a 2 dimensional caricature from.

I think the reason why I feel so odd right now is that it feels so much closer than it ever did before. Something I had been interested in academically has become flesh, and a small corner of a world I cherish has also become harder to defend from people with limited knowledge of both other cultural values and of all the small parts of my youth that they just want to see as insidious. The same people who say ‘Shari’a Law’ and fret about ‘Shari’a Courts’ not releasing that there are so many various interpretations of each of those which have altered over centuries, will now act like this person I once knew went down the only path a Muslim could go down.  And I will see this again and again until I just stop falling into these discussions.

Categories
General Politics Islam Political Debate

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom to Defend Nuance and Anger

I don’t know exactly what I will say when people speak to me over the next few weeks about Charlie Hebdo. I know they will lean in, head cocked, as they do each time something like this happens, and ask me what I think about it. I will begin with ‘It is a terrible tragedy’ and, jumping in, their eyes will light up as they discuss the backwardness of certain groups. It always feels like an awful talk segment titled When Muslims Attack!, where the conclusion has be set and I am merely the speaker drafted in for “balance”. To defend nuance makes you an apologist for murder.

When I was in high school I ran the Model United Nation’s club. At the beginning of each session we would discuss the top news stories. It was an Islamic country and, by extension, most of our members were Muslim. One week we discussed the Danish cartoon controversy, an incident that I now mainly remember for the months we were unable to buy Lurpak butter.

People were angry but only a few admitted to actually seeing the cartoons in question; most relied on information and descriptions from news and social media which were not always accurate. In the interest of a factual debate I described the cartoons as best as I could. People were still angry, but this time their hurt was only focused on certain cartoons – those that seemed to set out to offend for no other reason than they could. The rest were bad jokes or just confusing. It was a heated debate about the moral right to publish such things. No-one was debating the legal right of a cartoonist to draw such things, nor was the protection of these people from violent reprisals in question. They were upset that in a world were there was so much miscommunication about Islam, newspapers around the world were declaring that the very essence of freedom was to perpetuate cartoons depicting it as barbaric, and then gleefully documenting the violent reactions rather than the dominant response of either silence or non-violent demonstration. They wanted freedom to also mean the freedom to consider treating them with respect by not publishing them.

Muslims, it seems, are not allowed to be angry. They are not allowed to have the nuance of opposing something they find offensive, protesting it non-violently, and opposing violent reactions. We celebrate the rights both to offend and criticise in general, but for a Muslim to be an active part of this system is to risk getting lumped in with those who do not believe in debate and engagement. The only correct responses to such a cartoon are apparently either unquestioning support or the acknowledgement that it is “just a bad joke”. Yet if we make it so that our definition of a good Muslim is one who believes only what “we” deem progressive then what does that say about us?

I know that I will spend the next couple of days dealing with people labelling those close to me, in the most thinly veiled terms, as animals because when they hear ‘Islamic extremism’ what they actually hear is ‘natural progression of a dangerous religion’. I know that I will get the joy of reading ‘Muslims and the West’ as if it is not possible to be both truly Western and truly Muslim. As if Western values are a separate entity reserved only for the non-Muslim (and let’s be frank – often white) amongst us. As if the many people sharing these cartoons now in a show of solidarity do not include Muslims in their numbers.

I believe that some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo I have seen in the past day, and the calls to reprint them everywhere, can make people feel like they are not part of our society. We are reacting to an event by being divisive – “fully support these things and prove you’re with us, or get out”. People may share (as they should rightly be allowed to) some of these cartoons, including the ones that shore up stereotypes of Islam as intolerant and violent, but in the small area I control I won’t add to that public perception. It is a path which can contribute to the escalation of looks I receive in airports. It means adding to that culture that has people arguing with queer Muslims about their ability to be queer Muslims, or dismissing the choices of women who wear head-scarves as being rooted in oppression. I practice the freedom I value in my choice to not add to this labelling of Muslims as guilty until proven innocent.

Let people be angry about cartoons – now and in the future – and let them make cartoons for people to be angry about as well. Recognise that people can deplore murder and deplore things that hurt them. People can and should be allowed to show their opposition to such a horrific attack in many ways. One of them is engaging in the freedom that enables Charlie Hebdo to be published and hopefully to continue to be published in the future (for press, even ones we disagree with, should not be stopped with the barrel of a gun).

People are people, and the press are press. They are all flawed. Let both be criticised through the freedoms we cherish, and let both be free from violent attack.