“Why Queer? Don’t you have something more important than this to talk about?” – 5in10 with Razan Ghazzawi
Razan Ghazzawi received their PhD in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Sussex, Brighton. They also hold an MA in Gender, Sexuality, and the Body from the University of Leeds, UK, and an MA in Comparative Literature from Balamand University in Lebanon. In their thesis “Pedagogies of Everyday Queer Protests: Rethinking Political Subjectivity and Violence in Syria and Lebanon 2011-2021,” they examine everyday queer and trans encounters at checkpoints, prisons, and queer asylum in the contexts of ‘war on terror’ and the ‘refugee crisis.’ Based on 10 months of ethnographic and autoethnographic fieldwork, this research looks at how notions of protests, violence, and political subjects have relied on heteronormative and binary logic that ignored nonbinary forms of everyday protests. Razan is a EUME Fellow in the academic year 2022/23. They are a former prisoner from the Syrian state and an award winner of Frontline Defender in 2012.
How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?
It is hard to explain my research to someone who’s not an expert in my field because my research is on queer of color critique, which is something thought of as perverse, abnormal, and undesirable by experts and non-experts folks. I remember explaining my research to a fellow researcher and his reaction was: “Why queer? Don’t you have something more important than this to talk about?” So my research is exactly that; researching the not-so-important, the non-researchable subject, and sexual deviancy. My research is a queer intervention in Syria studies and social movement theory in the North Africa and Southwest Asia region more broadly.
In other words, my research is a queer intervention, re-narration, and historicization of contemporary Syrian politics since the 2011 popular uprising. My work encourages people to rethink the notion of protest, who is the revolutionary subject, and what constitutes as political violence from a queer of color perspective in the Syrian context. “Queer” here is not only a sexual “perverse” identity but also a method and an analytical framework. It questions normative and heteronormative (and homonormative) approaches to looking at what forms of protest and political subjectivities that were discredited and disposable, not only from the state but also from the revolution itself.
To do that, I look at checkpoints, prisons, and political exile, as everyday sites for political violence against the “commons,” not just against activists, public figures, revolutionaries, intellectuals, and politicians – who are the valorized political subjects in the “Arab Spring” research in the last decade. My research goes back to the root of the 2011 popular protest, to the everyday “commons,” and I do this as an exiled grassroots protester, activist–educator, a former political prisoner, and a fugitive from the state, Al-Qayeda, and ISIL terrorist groups.
I interviewed 20 LGBTQ Syrian and Palestinian workers, students, artists, activists, and teachers based in Lebanon between 2018-2019. I asked them about their experiences with the state and the revolution and how they navigated the authoritarian Syrian Baathist regime’s militarization and securitization following the popular protests. While many in the Syrian revolution talk about prison from a heteronormative perspective, my work rethinks dominant narratives about prison in Syria that are not part of the revolutionaries’ demands for justice. I look at the sex workers’ strikes in prison I witnessed in Adra prison in Damascus suburbs and explore everyday forms of queer protests in Syria and Lebanon from refugee and migrant perspectives.
In this sense, my research makes a case for the “commons” who are disposable from the state and the revolution based on gender, sexual, ethnic, and sectarian categories. Perhaps here it’s worth clarifying that I am not interested in LGBTQ identity politics that advocate inclusion in the revolutionary narrative or opposition bodies in the diaspora. My aim goes beyond an elitist and heteronormative approach to protest and political violence in counter-revolution times. It attempts to envision queer nonbinary futurities in Syria and the region beyond the state and the revolution. My aim, therefore, is to tackle structures of everyday violence and exclusions and recenter the grassroots and people-led self-determination beyond gendered, sexual, ethnic, and sectarian divisions and hierarchies.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?
I did my first master’s in Comparative Literature in Lebanon in 2005 on Iraqi Jewish literature, a topic inspired by reading Edward Said during my undergraduate studies at Damascus University. Growing up as a Palestinian teenager in Damascus, I was concerned with antisemitism in Syrian society, particularly among my colleagues at Damascus University, many of whom believed that being pro-Palestinian meant being anti-Jews. This Arab/Jew binary is flawed and dangerous as it erases Arab Jews as indigenous people in the region exiled by Arab nationalist regimes. As a Syrian-Palestinian, I did not see and still do not see the “conflict” in occupied Palestine as an Arab/Jewish one, but as a settler-colonial/indigenous struggle.
This is why I did my first master’s in Iraqi Jewish literature, particularly on Shimon Ballas’s short story collection, Signs of Autumn, where he depicts protagonists as people struggling with their non-conforming minority identities in Arab and Muslim society. As a queer Syrian-Palestinian teenager growing up in a dominantly Arab Muslim Sunni Syrian society, I was interested in studying in-between spaces and identities, and I chose Arab Jewish literature to contribute to Palestinian scholarship on Arab Jewish literature, particularly on the question of being neither celebrated Arab in the Arab-speaking communities, nor welcomed ethnicized Jews in Israel. My studies were interrupted following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2010 and 2011. I was preparing my PhD applications in Comparative Literature in the US, but I decided to stay in Syria and protest Assad.
I went back to studying as an exiled scholar in 2015 after being awarded the Chevening Scholarship. Exiled by the state, Al-Qayeda, and ISIL and as unwelcomed as a queer person in revolutionary communities, the academy was my only other familiar option, and I claim I was good at it. So I decided to bring my grassroots activism, my Syrian-Palestinian hybrid politics, and my queer, non-conforming politics into my scholarship. This is why I’m here today.
What were formative encounters or challenges?
Lack of funding, exile, lack of community, gatekeeping in the academy, being a person of color, and being a non-native English speaker, and my PTSD – all contributed to my struggle as a self-funded doctoral researcher and an early-career researcher. I was lucky to have a fee-waiver studentship from the Media, Film, and Music school at the University of Sussex in 2017, but working and studying at the same time to pay rent is a struggle not many speak about in the academy, especially in contexts of political exile.
Imposter syndrome is also a racial experience that is not discussed enough in UK higher education. Nevertheless, I think war, prison, and living under shelling for a year, prepared me for a tough life as a postgraduate student in the “west.” I have no regrets, but moving forward, I’m trying to care for my mental health more, do more joyful collaborative research with fellow scholars and activists, and not be shy about reaching out to people to build a caring community.
What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
I think in these contexts, even scholars and writers become emotional and mistake “listening to the streets” for being populist intellectuals. Like Fanon, I think the role of the intellectual is to challenge the mainstream, not be a spokesperson of “the street.” What is “the street” and who decides? In Syria, many would answer this question by saying “the Sunnis” because they’re the majority. Others would say that “the street” is the visible people we see in squares chanting.
But are squares accessible to all protestors? Is the revolution accessible to all people to begin with? In Al-Mharrar, only Sunni Arabs can publicly organize, which is terrifying because if this is what the revolution is materializing on the ground, it will lose all the non-Sunni Arabs in Syria, and it did eventually.
In other words, the role of humanities and social sciences today and in counter-revolution times is to challenge populist and mainstream discourses and narratives about what a revolution is and who is a revolutionary. To go back to the grassroots, to the struggle of everyday “commons,” to center class in the discussion, and research how sanctions and militarization are destroying everyday people’s lives instead of using PhD degrees and fellowships to justify what I call “diaspora saviorism” from geographies of diaspora and exile.
What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?
I’d like to recommend two brilliant articles; the first is “Bermuda triangulation: embracing the messiness of researching in conflict” by Dr. Suda Perer, which I was introduced to by one of my mentors, Dr. Samer Abboud. The article is important for every researcher and postgraduate student whose work is centered on wars and armed conflicts or settler-colonial violence. It really affirms the nuances of fieldwork and how to navigate different stories by different interlocutors, and how to come up with analysis despite the messiness encountered in the field.
The second article is “Towards a Postcolonial Ethics of Care,” by Dr. Nalinie Mooten, which is recommended by my supervisor and mentor, Dr. Malcolm James. The article is dear to my heart as it really speaks to the importance of care when thinking about ethics in research and fieldwork. This is important because I worked with refugees and migrants from the LGBTQ community, so the question of care was helpful while working with people in these contexts. I loved the article as it employs a Marxist feminist postcolonial lens when thinking about encounters and interactions with the “subaltern” in the field from the positionality of exiled and diasporic researchers in western academy. I believe the question of ethics is not talked about enough, and this article was really one of the best I read on this issue.
Citation: “Why Queer? Don’t you have something more important than this to talk about?” – 5in10 with Razan Ghazzawi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.02.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45151