Evan Alterman

Saqer Almarri’s paper “Identities of a Single Root: The Triad of the Khuntha, Mukhannath, and Khanith” analyzes the etymology and use of three Arabic words designating bodies and existences “in the in-betweens and margins of gender, sex, and sexuality, in ways that may be understood at times as non-heteronormative and at other times as non-cisnormative” (99). At the same time, through the genre of autoethnography, Almarri conveys his lived experience with the terms in question. What emerges is a textured, nuanced, and edifying explanation of those social and gender systems at the confluence of which emerge the distinct yet linguistically related categories of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith.[1] Their morphological root, khaʾ-nun-thaʾ, signals an intermixture of forms that, while encoded in those very three words, also structures the paper itself. These three categories provided an enriching, alternative vantage point within the Trans;form symposium. Amidst conversations on transformations, translations, and resistance, Almarri showcases lexemes and identities perhaps more emblematic of “interformations,” i.e., internal hybridities, juxtapositions, and mutations. As Trans;form interrogates how incorporating Arabic contexts further shapes comparative literature, “Identities” accentuates the importance of tending to intra-systemic fluctuations before attempting to extrapolate them onto exogenous fields.

As mentioned above, mixed forms are crucial not only to the understanding of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith communities, but also to the very scaffolding of Almarri’s paper. Almarri alternates between the register of autoethnography and lived experiences, on the one hand, and that of rigorous academic analysis, on the other. This alternation reminds us of the paper’s opening anecdote – a wedding where Almarri “slip[s] back and forth between the women’s […] celebration and the men’s […] celebration” (97) – and the English-language high-school where, as an Emirati teenager, he would switch “between the languages [he] spoke” (98). Almarri thus navigates between forms in a text devoted to words that, precisely, designate mixed forms. Such shifts enact the porousness and permeability largely associated with queer identities existing outside strict cis- and hetero-normative frameworks. At the risk of relying on a (hackneyed) binary, I could say that here lies a beautiful instance of form mirroring – if not determining – content. It bears mentioning that the majority of the autoethnography is placed towards the beginning of the text; further incorporations of it in subsequent sections would only underscore the notion of variability which the paper already foregrounds.

Almarri states that as a genre, autoethnography represents “an engagement with, a reflection on, and a critique of representations others have made of their community”; as such, he uses “Identities” to address scholars and the queer community (or, in his words, the Mujtamaʿ al-Mim) alike (99). Discussions of epistemic violence inflicted by 1) Eurocentric terminology and knowledge systems that are transposed onto the Gulf Region (Almarri’s geographical focus) and by 2) methodologically lax scholarship implicitly target academics and demonstrate to them how to avoid false equivalents. Almarri is certainly rigorous in his discussion of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith identities; as he develops his paper, I would be curious to see where he is addressing the Mujtamaʿ al-Mim. What does he want its members to take away from his writing? What pitfalls, problems, and shortcoming exist in the Mujtamaʿ al-Mim, and how can the community remedy them? Expanding upon the prevalence and functionality of autoethnography in the text could possibly mean the incorporation of perspectives shedding light on those questions as well.

Regarding the actual content of the paper, “Identities” focuses on loci, texts, and experiences originating in the Gulf Region, yet discussions about physical spaces lead to others about an equally fecund venue for knowledge-production and identity-formation: the Internet. Although the cyberworld runs parallel to physical, “actual” sites policing and imperiling those who, like Almarri, actively participated in online chatrooms for makhanith (i.e., the plural of khanith), its generative qualities guarantee its centrality in the paper. It is entirely possible to inscribe “Identities” within the growing volume of scholarship devoted to queer digital/Internet studies. While the Internet provided a refuge for Almarri to explore questions of identity and community, further discussions of the vulnerability of the Internet, e.g., incursions of hate speech into tacitly-designated safe venues, would provide an edifying counterpoint to the paper’s depictions of the Internet as a space fostering belonging.

Incongruence, on the levels of grammatical and legal/social conventions alike, is a theme that resounds in certain moments in “Identities.”[2] A similar clash emerges as individuals come and go between the Internet – with its potential for forming shared experiences and collective identities – and the splintered, splintering realities of life outside the digital sphere. Perhaps such movement(s) back and forth can be conceptualized as another translation practice alongside others featured in Trans;form, e.g., lexical, semantic, aesthetic, and ideological translation.

On the subject of the Internet, Almarri mentions how one of the chatrooms he frequented as a teenager was called #makhanith, its name written in Arabic script (98). While Almarri mentions that the conversations held there transpired “exclusively in Arabic” (98), I was left wondering about the nature of the Arabic used within the chatroom. Namely, like the chatroom’s name, was it reproduced in Arabic script, or instead, was it transliterated? Transliteration did not explicitly figure within the parameters of Trans;form, yet I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the implications of transliterated discourse. It is not infrequently that one can see transliterated comments on online forums. Some users may opt to transliterate in order to avoid constantly switching alphabets while using a computer, and perhaps others located in the diaspora may not feel comfortable writing with a specific set of letters. As such, if it did occur in #makhanith and/or if it does occur in similar virtual spaces, does transliteration facilitate communication, or does it represent outside interference on an otherwise self-contained, self-sufficient, organic system of knowledge and culture? Are the two even mutually exclusive? For me, one of the most salient takeaways from Trans;form – and something that Almarri underscores in his paper – was the call for attentiveness as one translates not only between semantics, but also between socio-historical phenomena spanning different cultures. The edifying or noxious role that transliteration plays in that process – as it both exposes phonetic underpinnings and imposes alien writing systems – could very well provide additional texture to conversations surrounding movements between forms, meanings, poetics, and literatures.

Even with the Internet as a crucial focal point, the Gulf’s importance in “Identities” still cannot be understated. Discussions of changes to the Emirati educational system that helped “transculturate Western social attitudes” (102) provide glimpses into contemporary socio-historical factors framing lived experience in the region; although falling outside the scope of sexuality and identity, their impact is undeniable. Additional factors may merit mentioning in “Identities.” For instance, has the influx of labor workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines (among other locales) impacted all who can consider themselves khunatha, mukhannathun, and/or makhanith (i.e., the plurals of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith, respectively)? Are those terms and their affiliated spaces malleable enough to incorporate cosmopolitan, non-native elements (physically and digitally), or are they premised on ethnic homogeneity? Do non-Arab queer people in the Gulf even desire to apply those terms to themselves? The possible presence and persistence of Southeast Asian identity markers such as hijra in the Gulf could serve as a possible departure point for further investigation. Similarly, if “Identities” were to expand its region of focus, as someone who is not an Arabist, I would be curious to see if and how the terms khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith are used outside the Gulf, i.e., in the Levant, Maghreb, and/or diaspora communities. Is there any sense of continuity between the terms’ use in the Gulf and in other locales, and/or are there localized variations? Are there moments of collision and/or concordance between Gulf-based queer signifiers and foreign ones? Once again, even in a text built upon mixed forms, one can extricate future dialogue highlighting shifts between forms (i.e., regionally-marked terms identifying queerness) and between physical spaces alike.

There are additional ways to further nuance queerness in “Identities” beyond the geographical. The three terms under discussion seem to emphasize the masculine, be it male bodies, sexuality, and/or femininity. While reading “Identities,” I was wondering how the Gulf treats female bodies, sexuality, and/or masculinity in queer contexts. For instance, is there an antonym for mukhannath which would help to discursively center them? Almarri states that makhanith are able to fluidly move between exclusively female and male spaces while ultimately reemerging as male elders in the greater community at large (102); his thorough analysis could very well gain in complexity by investigating how female lives and bodies exist in parallel frameworks, as well as move between and amongst those circumscribed by khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith.

A great deal of the paper’s meticulousness resides in Almarri’s attention to the discursive genealogy of each of the three words in question. The section devoted to khuntha abounds in detailed analyses of legal and judicial sources, and his description of mukhannath includes references to nineteenth-century Iranian culture, lexicography, and Islamic scholarship. Of particular note was how the term mukhannath “erased distinctions that Arab-Islamic culture made for the various behaviors associated with homosexuality…mark[ing] the differences between insertive/active and receptive/partners in anal sex, and distinctions between infatuation and sexual lust” (104). While it may be elementary for scholars of Arab and Islamic cultures – and while it may fall outside the parameters of “Identities” – a reader may be curious to learn about the individuals and institutions that originally coined such terms. What prompted them to create words with such designations? Are they still in circulation today? And if so, how do they engage with the other three terms which Almarri discusses?

To make an analogous point about terminology, after reading the paper, I was left wanting to learn even more about the term khanith. The paper cites Wikan’s use of the term in anthropological scholarship (addressing a presumably non-Gulf readership), yet – again, with the caveat that I am not an Arabist – I was curious about its first emergence in the Gulf and in the greater Arabic-speaking world. “Identities” also mentions the term’s pejorative denotations and connotations. Nonetheless, does the term have traction in (popular, religious) culture outside the Internet? Which texts and artifacts use the term, and what is the mindset of the speakers who use it: do they identify with it, sympathize with it, or view it as taboo? Similarly, what role do euphemisms play? Attention to such questions could accentuate the dialogic component surrounding general language practices and specific lexeme uses alike.

Finally, to return to some of the earlier points about autoethnography, Almarri argues – and fully demonstrates – that treating the khaʾ-nun-thaʾ triad in concert, rather than by its components, facilitates a broader, more holistic understanding thereof. The paper’s emphasis on the three terms’ etymologies and diachronic uses shows how they engage with each other; I was curious to see how, in addition, actual communities engage with each other. Except for a tale about mistaken mukhannath identity (104), it was difficult for me to gauge how individuals inhabiting specific, discrete identities form (or don’t form?) a cohesive whole with others inhabiting different yet morphologically-linked identities. Are there tensions between makhanith and mukhannathun? Is a khuntha more inclined to identify as khanith or mukhannath outside the legal sphere? Is it possible for someone to belong to all those communities simultaneously, or even pass from one to another during the course of a lifetime? Expanded (auto)ethnographic material taken from personal testimonies, online chatrooms, and other fora – material showcasing moments of unity and/or discord among the three identities – could help resolve those questions, as well as accentuate the links between language, community, and lived experience.

In conclusion, “Identities” does a remarkable job of tracing the origins and discursive trajectory of the three labels khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith. In positing that translating those terms into Western categories would, in the words of J.N.C. Garcia (Philippine gay culture: The last thirty years: Binabae to bakla, 1996, p. 51) expose areas of “ambivalence, contradiction, exclusion, overlapping, and equivalency” (106), Almarri interrogates the role of the translator. He forces readers to ask how translators – sensu stricto and more abstractly speaking – are to approach lacunae inherent to their craft. What do the aforementioned moments of ambivalence, contradiction, and exclusion entail? Do they problematize comparative approaches, and if so, is there a hint of a resolution anywhere? During the last day of Trans;form, collective attempts to translate the Dictionary of Untranslatables’ entries for “poetry” and “politics” into participants’ target languages and cultures underscored moments of resistance and opacity inherent to translation; even more to the point, in his discussion of khwaja sira in Pakistan, Faris A. Khan brought to everyone’s attention instances of deliberate resistance, specifically from queer communities thwarting efforts from the outside world to grasp and, resultantly, reductively essentialize them. For the khwaja sira, rhetoric becomes a means for enchantment and befuddlement, an instrument of sophistry and étourdissement. Here, symposium participants were correct to note traces of Jack/Judith Halberstam’s “queer failure,” i.e., (intentional) failure to become encapsulated into mediated norms. Furthermore, at one point, Emily Apter asked participants to look into the “trans-role” in language: how is it captured, especially when a referent may have non-binary attributes? In asking her question in such a manner, she casts gender and sex as questions of/for translation. In the end, the symposium, via Almarri’s intervention and those of others, asked attendees to grapple with the following: can the queer be translated, and, perhaps more fundamentally, should it be translated?

[1] For definitions of those terms, please consult Almarri’s paper. [Editorial note: version with diacritics available upon request.]

[2] The word khuntha ends with an alif maqsurah, a morphological feature indicating a feminine noun. However, the word necessitates masculine pronouns, adjectives, and verbs, even in those instances when a court deems that a khuntha’s body is female.