"Pervert travels in the Muslim world" - does "gay" equal "shazz?"

The first book on gay life ever to be translated into Arabic from English is soon due to hit bookstands in Beirut. The book’s translation, however, has caused a stir well before its release. The Lebanese publisher in charge of the Arabic translation has namely chosen to translate “gay” as “shazz," meaning “pervert” or “deviant” in Arabic. What is in store for “Gay travels in the Muslim world” now called “Pervert travels in the Muslim World” in its Arabic translation?
Pervert travels in the Muslim world
The editor of the book, Michael Luongo, holding a copy of "Gay Travels in the Muslim World." [Arab Diffusion, 2009] © The Advocate

BEIRUT, July 27, 2009 (MENASSAT) —In recent years, gay rights organizations and activists across the Arab world have lobbied Arab media to stop the use of the word “shazz” - a demeaning term still often used by Arabic mass media to describe homosexuals.

Instead of “shazz”, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) activists have introduced the term “mithly," which loosely translates as “same,” and pushed for media adoption of this less disparaging term.

In contrast to pan-Arab media, which has appeared reluctant to apply neutral terminology when referring to homosexuals and still demonizes gays to a large extent, Lebanese media outlets have increasingly starting to abandon “shazz” for less demeaning terms such as “mithly.”

“Lebanese media has been very forward in adopting neutral terminology, although other Arab media still uses words like ‘sodomite’ and  ‘deviant,’” Ghassan Makarem of Beirut-based gay rights group Helem told MENASSAT.

Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, for example, has carried several reports on issues concerning homosexuals in Lebanon recently, using “positive” terminology.

In an October 2008 article, the newspaper published a story about an online lesbian magazine in Lebanon describing the publication and its publisher Meem, a Beirut-based lesbian support group using the term “mithlyaat” instead of “Sohaqiyat” - sohaqiyat an Arabic term used to describe lesbians which many non-straight women in the Middle East feel uncomfortable with.

“Shazz” versus “mithly”

Considering the success story with the Lebanese media, the fact that “Pervert travels in the Muslim world” is the prodigy of a Lebanese publishing house comes as a particularly hard blow to gay rights activists in the country.

Makarem said Helem has lodged a complaint about the book’s translation with the publisher, Arab Diffusion.

“We have already been in contact with him (the publisher) and informed him of our disagreement with the title,” said Makarem.

“Travels of the pervert” or “Gay Travels in the Middle East” as the original title of the book reads, is a compilation of stories written by both Muslim and non-Muslims about the life and hardships of gays living in countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq.

The editor of the book, Michael Luongo, appeared mildly happy over the Arabic translation of his book. The author did not vet the translation before its publication, which he said was mainly due to the fact that the project was finished ahead of schedule.

Speaking to the US magazine The Advocate, Luongo said that gay rights organizations across the Middle East that he had planned to hold events with were “horrified” by the Arabic translation of the book.

The ill-fated translation could be harmful to the extent that it might interfere with the author’s plans to promote the book in the Middle East this October.

Luongo has asked the publishing house to “fix the problem” but it remains unclear if Arab Diffusion will revise its translation.

“The publisher said this is the word (shazz) they’ve traditionally used. It’s already in print and they’re starting to distribute it, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Luongo told the Advocate.

Bint el Nas, a website for lesbian women with roots in the Arab world, traces the issue of negative Arabic terminology used to describe homosexuals to the notion that “positive” terms describing same sex relations were only introduced into the Arabic language in recent years.

“The Arabic language does not have positive words to express the emotional or sexual relations between two people of the same gender. The known expressions in formal or classical Arabic are negative and degrading: “shouzouz jinsi” (unnatural or abnormal sexuality), “loowat” (the homosexual act among men, in reference to the story of Prophet Lot in the Bible or Lut in the Koran), and “sihaq” (the homosexual act among women),” the website states.

It continues, “During the last years of the twentieth century, some sociologists, psychologists, and journalists whose professional conscience was alive, started to use the positive expression of “mithliya jinsiya”, which is an accurate translation for homosexuality — a word that was first used in European languages around 100 years ago,” read a study on the site.

In a bid to spread awareness of positive terms describing homosexuality, Bint el Nas offers its readers a glossary of available non-demeaning terms and expressions.

Reclaiming “shazz”

Not all queer activists, however, are unhappy with Arab Diffusion’s controversial translation. There are those who say that “shazz” actually better describes them than any other Arabic term.

In a comment to a post about the book affair on the international blog community Global Voices, reader “Pazuzu” writes that she, as an “irregular” citizen, feels most comfortable with the term “shazz.” The only problem with the word, she says, is its negative historical connotation.

“My personal identity as a queer in terms of gender identity and sexual identity just doesn’t exist in any politically correct form. The term شاذ أو شاذة, is just so perfect, because technically the term means “irregular” and I am irregular, even in my political and social opinions, and in my taste in music. It’s the historical connotation that is demeaning,” wrote Pazuzu.

“Shazz” helps Pazuzu stand on the sidelines of what she describes as a segregated society where homophobia is still the norm.

“Politically I find it very empowering to isolate myself from the heteronormative society. I want to isolate myself from the severely gender segregated Lebanese society I live in. I want to be irregular in a society where homophobia is the norm, I want to be irregular in a society where sexual harassment is the norm, and I want to be irregular in a sectarian society,” she wrote.

Reading Pazuzu’s statement, one might wonder if the future will witness the reclaim of “shazz” by Arab LGBT advocates just like activists turned the term “queer” around from its early negative meaning of “odd” or “unusual” to a means of self-empowerment.

But in this particular case, the Arabic publishers of the book probably did not chose “shazz” in the translation because they sought to “appropriate the word for positive use”, writes Katharine Ganly, author of the post on Global Voices.

“Pervert travels in the Muslim World” appears to have served as a good wake up call for Luongo who says he at first thought it was more important to have an Arabic translation of his book “than to worry about the risk”.

“The problem of the translation itself is educational. We’ve gone through this here in the United States. It’s a learning experience,” he concluded.

MENASSAT attempted to reach Arab Diffusion for a comment and was told that comments “will be addressed” after the launching of the book.