As a young girl, Shenaaz Janmohamed learned about social justice from stories of Karbala. The Iraqi city is a sacred site for Shia Muslims, and the location of battles against tyranny and oppression.
Today, the therapist, school social worker, and queer Muslim of color looked to Karbala when choosing the theme for the second volume of the Totally Radical Muslim zine.
A zine is a self-published print booklet, often filled with essays, poetry, photography, collages, and other forms of media. Totally Radical Muslims (TRM), which released its second volume last week, has provided an outlet for queer, transgender, and other radical and progressive Muslims in Oakland and beyond. Janmohamed is its founder and curator, working with a group of volunteers to produce the zines.
As Janmohamed explains, TRM is about reclaiming narratives.
“There’s so much misinformation about Muslims these days, and we’re deeply misunderstood,” she said, adding that it’s worse for radical Muslims. Those who identify as queer consider gender identity and sexual orientation fluid, a topic that may be considered controversial by most mainstream Muslims. “We’re just absent from a lot of discourse about Muslims,” she said. A zine provided a do-it-yourself solution for Janmohamed and her peers, a quick and accessible way to share stories with fellow Muslims and other progressive allies.
TRM’s new volume is titled “Karbala Fired Resistance Stories.” It touches on topics including anti-imperialist politics, loneliness, reclaiming identity, and the impact of war, xenophobia, and racism.
TRM’s first release, “Islamophobia: A Bitchin’ Zine,” was more tongue-in-cheek. “That idea was really kind of like, we’re here, we’re queer, hahaha,” Janmohamed said about volume one, which came out in August 2012.
“Karbala” has more depth, Janmohamed said. Filled with artwork, poetry, and writings from as far away as Mexico City, the zine is split into two sections. “Raised Fists” focuses on the impacts of war, especially from the point of view of Muslims separated from their homelands. “Open Hearts” shows how visible queer and trans Muslims are making pathways within their families, communities, and histories.
This time around, the TRM crew even collected stories from incarcerated contributors, young men of color who are organizing and resisting on the inside. “Finding out that our zine is reaching people on the inside of prisons has been so rewarding, because I feel like folks on the inside are at the forefront of so many struggles,” Janmohamed said. “We’re finding common ground.”
Maxwell Simon Abdullah, a trans man who recently returned to Islam, has a poem published in “Karbala.” He stumbled upon TRM on the blogging platform Tumblr and had no idea the zine was based in the East Bay when he submitted his work.
His poem touches on his conversion, internal homophobia, and feelings about religion in general. “I have found most queers that I know to be really jaded with religion, and that has had a negative impact on me, sort of my mental health,” he said. TRM let Abdullah deepen his understanding of Islam, which he says helped him get through the hard part of his mental health experience.
Karbala was released to the public at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California at an event emceed by Zahra Noorbakhsh. The comedian describes herself as a “pork-eating, alcohol-drinking, pre-marital sex having Muslim.” She met Janmohamed after a performance of her one-woman show, “All Atheists Are Muslims,” and soon thereafter, Janmohamed invited Noorbakhsh to join in on the zine’s production in its earliest days.
Noorbakhsh thinks young Muslims need a zine to be able to say what they feel and be who they are. As her own voice has gotten lost in the “media charge of the monolith,” she needed to find a release like TRM. Plus, the zine offers an outlet for artists. “It gives me a chance to try new material amongst the peer group that I don’t need to catch up before I try it,” Noorbakhsh said.
The zines are available for purchase at the group’s website, totallyradicalmuslims.com. “Karbala” costs $10, while “Islamophobia” is currently offered at pay-what-you-can prices, plus shipping fees. Money from the sales, plus additional money from a grant and grassroots fundraising, help the all-volunteer group produce the zine.
For queer, trans, and radical Muslims in Oakland, Janmohamed adds, their Muslim identity can take the backseat to their other identities. But Muslims in other parts of the country or the world aren’t necessarily afforded the same luxury. And TRM’s readers stretch beyond Oakland to other parts of the world.
“So I think people appreciate that, within our relative privilege here in the Bay Area, we are organizing and putting our stories out there,” she said.
Venezuela has given three American diplomats from the US Embassy in Caracas 48 hours to exit the country after President Nicolas Maduro leveled accusations of conspiracy and meeting with students to incite anti-government sentiment.
Following days of opposition protests, three unnamed diplomats were declared persona non grata by Maduro during a televised address on Sunday night. On Monday Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Elias Jaua announced that the US diplomats in question were vice consuls Breann Marie McCusker and Jeffrey Elsen, and Kristofer Lee Clark, who holds the rank of second secretary at the US consulate.
Jaua said during a press conference that the three officials had assisted “groups that seek to generate violence in the country,” and that they had 48 hours to leave.
As evidence, Jaua cited email correspondence from US embassy officials in recent years that supposedly call for funding from Washington to support Venezuelan student groups, AP reported.
He added that the diplomats sought contacts “for the training, the financing and the creation of youth organizations to foment violence.”
"It’s a group of US functionaries who are in the universities. We’ve been watching them having meetings in the private universities for two months. They work in visas," Maduro stated Sunday in a nationally televised broadcast.
Last Wednesday, over 10,000 people poured onto the streets of Caracas to peacefully protest their growing worries, such as the country’s high murder rate and a record-breaking 56 percent inflation.
At the end of Wednesday’s opposition protests, a group of students battled with security forces and pro-government militias, leaving three people dead. Maduro’s government blamed the violence on Harvard-educated opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom Maduro accuses of leading a US-backed"fascist" plot to oust the socialist government.
“There is a fascist group that abuses public freedoms and democracy to play politics and prepare to overthrow the government,” Maduro said.
The US State Department responded Monday, calling Maduro’s allegations “baseless and false.”
“As we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, according to AFP.
Protests in Caracas continued Monday, Ruptly new agency reported, as hundreds anti-government protesters marched to the offices of media regulatory body Conatel.
Lopez and opposition allies announced Monday they will reroute a protest on Tuesday away from the central plaza in Caracas to avoid clashing with a simultaneous pro-government march called for by Maduro.
Gregory Wilpert, author of "Changing Venezuela by Taking Power," says the more radical end of Maduro’s opposition has decided to act now to highlight inflation and shortages in the national economy. Though he said the protests will likely have more of an impact on Maduro’s image than his grip on power.
"(The protests) represent more of a challenge to his public relations, I think, than an actual challenge to his power," Wilpert told RT in an interview. "Internationally, there’s been a tremendous amount of success in portraying the government as having cracked down on opposition demonstrators and making the government look bad in that sense."
He said the charges of US subterfuge must be put into proper historical perspective, at least at this early juncture.
"One has to see those accusations in the context of US history and its interference throughout Latin American countries over the past century," he said. "There’s a long series of interventions, and that makes especially left governments of Latin America very suspicious of US government intentions."
For many years the pictures that came out of Lebanon were of bomb-damaged buildings and human tragedy, but an archive of photographs from the 1950s to 1970s reveals a very different picture - a record of life long hidden from view.
Hashem el Madani began taking photographs in 1948 with a box camera in his parents’ living room, selling contact prints for the equivalent of 25 cents (15p). After a few years he was able to open a studio - he took photos for ID papers, as well as portraits of babies, newly-weds and groups of friends. On quiet afternoons, he would go out looking for customers in shops, garages, on the beach, even the local prison.
At the height of his popularity in the 60s and 70s, Madani, now 86, would have up to 100 customers a day passing through his studio in the upmarket Shehrazade building, in the port city of Saida. Then came the civil war. When Israeli troops invaded in 1982, a shell blew out the studio’s windows, and a friend died. His business never recovered. But 16 years later Lebanon’s leading artist walked through the door.
Akram Zaatari, whose films and installations involving historic images are world-renowned, was looking for photos of vehicles. Studio Shehrazade had plenty of pictures of mechanics fixing cars - and 1,001 other things. It was a revelation.
Not only did Madani document 90% of the town’s inhabitants over five decades but there are some extraordinary portraits in his archive.
For young men, a studio photo was a chance to show off their muscles and goof around with props - cowboy outfits were popular - others wrestled in front of the camera.
Zaatari says that was normal in the 1950s. “If you had your picture taken you would seize the opportunity to create something different of yourself,” he says. “They wanted to look at themselves as if they were looking at an actor in a film.” It was fun.
Movies were a great source of inspiration for Madani’s sitters. This included acting out a kiss - but only men kissing men and women kissing women. “In a conservative society such as Saida, people were willing to play the kiss between two people of the same sex, but very rarely between a man and a woman,” Madani told Zaatari. He remembers that happening only once.
"If you look at it today you think - is it gay culture? But in fact it is not," says Zaatari. Social restrictions were different then. "If you wanted to kiss it had to be a same-sex kiss to be accepted."
Men showed off their photos, but for women a picture was considered intimate and would only be shared with a trusted few. Madani had purposely found a studio space on the first floor, so that women could visit discreetly - seen entering at street level, their destination would not be obvious. Once inside, they could relax - but it did not always end well.
Madani still has the scratched negatives that tell the tragic story of a Mrs Baqari and her jealous husband. When he found out about his wife’s pictures, he threatened to destroy the shop and came in to demand the roll of film. Madani refused to hand it over. “In the end we agreed to scratch the negatives of his wife with a pin, and I did it in front of him.” However, life proved too hard for Mrs Baqari - she committed suicide. “Years later, after she burned herself to death to escape her misery, he came back to me asking for enlargements of those photographs,” says Madani. Her husband cried when he saw the pictures for the first time.
Posing with guns became increasingly popular, reflecting the turbulent politics of the time. From the late 1960s it was common to see armed men on the streets of Saida. When someone brought a gun to the studio, others would borrow it to take a picture.
"I consider the act of posing with a gun as an act of showing off - a display of power," Madani told Zaatari, for his book, Studio Practices, about Madani. "It is part of my role as a photographer to photograph them the way they wish."
Along with flared trousers, resistance politics were fashionable in the 70s. “Everybody wanted to learn how to use guns,” says Zaatari, who was growing up in Saida at the time. His parents did not allow him to go to militia training, though many of his friends did. “I don’t recall life before the war,” he says. “War is like when you are born in the sea. You don’t realise that life could be different.”
The shifting shadows of politics crossed Madani’s lens over the years, but he didn’t experience any trouble from the authorities. The closest he came was when he took pictures at a protest against former President Camille Cham’oun and the army came to his office demanding the negatives. His archives also contain photographs of Syrian Intelligence agents, and of Iraqi Baathists who had an office in his building.
Following Egyptian President Nasser’s death, mourners grew beards. “They came and acted sad faces,” Madani says in Studio Practices. “It was fashionable to be sad when Nasser died.”
Madani never refused to photograph anyone. “Let me tell you one thing that I’ve learned,” he says. “If you are tolerant and speak kindly to people, the world will love you.”
For Zaatari, Studio Shehrazade was like a trove of buried treasure.
As a child in the war years, it was not always safe to play outside, so he spent hours cooped up in the family’s apartment. There he began recording everything around him - taping the sound of bombs as well as his sister’s piano practice, taking pictures, and writing in his diary. His desire to document real life stayed with him - he has been called a documentary artist - and he uses photographic archive in much of his work.
This passion led him, with others, to set up the Arab Image Foundation. In 1997, he began travelling across the region searching for prints, visiting professional photographers and trawling through hundreds of family albums - yet his greatest discovery came in his home town.
Zaatari decided to approach Madani’s life and work as if it were an archaeological excavation. It was the start of a collaboration which has led to the photographs being exhibited across the world.
"I’m really interested in how the personal and the intimate meet history," Zaatari says. "What I’m doing is to write history, or [fill in] gaps of history, by using photographic documents."
"I feel more freedom dealing with distant times as opposed to my times," he says. "That’s also my problem with what you see about [the] Arab uprising today in the media. I do not know yet where it’s going to lead me, I do not make sense out of it today. With Hashem el Madani, I can say: ‘This is the result of 55 years of work in Studio Shehrazade.’ But I cannot say that about something that’s still ongoing - I cannot understand."
The Arab Image Foundation
• A ground-breaking collection of more than 600,000 historic images of daily life in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora
• Zaatari interviewed some of the people who contributed photographs for his film On Photography People & Modern Times
Madani, for his part, doesn’t believe in retirement. “Staying at home makes you bored and tired,” he says. “During the day I go to my studio and reminisce about the past. I am nostalgic and I want to relive those days. I much preferred it back then. I used to sleep for about four hours a day, and the rest of the time I would be working”. He still occasionally takes photographs, now on a digital camera.
He is proud to have been chosen for Zaatari’s research and happy that his work continues to be seen. He has accompanied the artist to major international exhibitions, but the project that has meant most to him personally is the Hashem el Madani Walking Itinerary in the old city of Saida where framed portraits of shopkeepers taken in the 1950s were “returned” to the original shops. “I would have liked to photograph all the residents of Saida, because this is where I live,” he told Zaatari.
Zaatari currently has exhibitions in Belgium and Canada. What will happen to Studio Shehrazade is unclear - it may become a museum.
Additional reporting by Mohamed Madi.