Bareed Mista3jil (Express Mail) - new book presents stories from Lebanon's lesbian and transgender community

A ground-breaking new book published in Lebanon explores the lives of Lebanon's lesbian and transgendered community. The book, Bareed Mista3jil (Express Mail), presents 41 stories in both Arabic and English - derived from field interviews with members of both communities throughout parts of Lebanon. MENASSAT was at the May 30 book launch and reading, and features this interview with one of the book's main architects - Nadine Mouawad.
Bareed Mista3jil's cover and a corresponding video as seen on ©Meem

BEIRUT, June 2, 2009 (MENASSAT) - A standing room only crowd was on hand at Masrah al Medina (City Theater) in west Beirut last Saturday (May 30) for a reading of stories from the newly published book Bareed Mista3jil (Express Mail) – the first-ever book published in Lebanon featuring narratives written by a diverse cross-section of Lebanon’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community.

Bareed Mista3jil features 41 stories in Arabic and English, each one originating from interviews with some 150 lesbians and transgenders from various regions of Lebanon.

A working group from Beirut’s LGBTQ community recorded the interviews, between 2007 and 2008. Writers then transformed the interviews into story form and published them only after interviewees had a final vetting.

“The title of the book, Express Mail, really indicates the urgency of the stories and the private nature of them that needed to be told, made public,” explained Nadine Mouawad, a member of the Feminist Collective, involved from the project’s inception.

At the May 30 reading, the spotlight moved between two women readers who each took their turn telling the tales of those in the crowd – many who had contributed to the collection.

Other contributors were afraid to attend such a public gathering because of the obvious sensitive nature of the material.

“Our purpose was to present the stories of this marginalized, invisible community straight from the hearts of the people who lived them,” the book’s introduction states.

While, the book is about presenting the stories of women who are not heterosexual to a mainstream audience, the stories are multi-dimensional, intersecting issues such as religion, class, war, and emigration. 

Besides the Feminist Collective, the LBTQ women’s support group Meem, and the activist organization IndyAct were also involved in organizing Bareed Mista3jil’s book launch.

MENASSAT caught up with Nadine Mouawad after the launch to discuss the book.

MENASSAT: How did the project come about?

“We wanted to write a book about the stories of people, of non-heterosexuals, providing something that is not just academic research.”

“Storytelling is the oldest form of activism in the world.”

“First we thought, let’s write a book called gay Lebanon. But we didn’t know any lesbians. Helem (an LGBTQ rights organization) started and then Meem was founded as a queer women and transgendered space open to non-heterosexuals.”

MENASSAT: How did you find people interested in participating?
“We didn’t want to make it submission based, so our team interviewed all sorts of women. We sent mails, made announcements, contacted women’s groups. Finding young lesbians in the city was easy but finding ones outside of the city was more difficult.”

“Through this process we discovered a wide range of gender identities. Nobody knows the stories of these women.”

“After doing about 100 interviews, we were halfway through the project and we came up with themes, and decided to make sure all the themes were represented through the stories, and that we were not presenting this community as one homogenous community”

MENASSAT: How did people respond?

  “Everybody’s immediate reaction was, ‘I have no story.’”

MENASSAT: The book was released about a week before the elections here in Lebanon. Did you plan it accordingly?

“The book came out two weeks ago. We were super eager about getting it out.”
“Meem is a network of support for women. But the Feminist Collective said it was too good to just go on shelves, it has to reach people. So the Feminist Collective and IndyAct met.”

“The original plan was for it to first appear in bookstores, and not to have so much publicity.”

“We realized only later that the elections would be the following week. We thought, perfect. The most marginalized individuals of Lebanon will be making a statement.”

“It was a brave step for both of us to say we support sexual rights unconditionally.”
“And the whole event was organized by people 24 and under.”

“We invited women’s rights groups to come but none of them did. They fear that if they are associated with lesbians it will make them less popular.”

MENASSAT: How has the book been received?
“On the personal level it has done so much for people.”

“Do you know what it means for someone to hide their stories for 20-30 years and then write them for people to read?  Do you know how empowering and difficult that is at the same time?”

“We got emails from all over the Arab world of people asking for books - Egypt, Saudi, Adu Dhabi. We’ve got to see how we are going to smuggle them into those countries.”

MENASSAT: The book is very focused on Lebanon. It does not at all frame these stories in a Western context. Why is this important?

“The book uses a Lebanese context entirely. We made it a point to put a lot of local contextualization. Only Lebanese people will understand it, which is super-important. Our target audience is Lebanon, not the western world. We are targeting the homophobic heterosexual communities in Lebanon.”

“When we talk about Islam it’s a Lebanese Islam, when we talk about Christianity it’s a Lebanese Christianity.”

“We made it a point to put things in context – we mention the (Lebanese 1975-1990) civil war, Nahr el Bared (2007 battle against radical Islamist militants in a northern Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp), the Israeli invasion (34-day Israeli offensive in 2006).”

“It’s generally about women struggling. For example one story called independence, it has very little to do with your sexual orientation.”

“Also there are four stories about transgendered. It’s good because the book explains the difference between gender orientation and sexual identity.”

MENASSAT: And lastly, the title. Why Bareed Mista3jil?  

“We wanted a vague title. It’s meant to signify that their stories are personal letters, in a big hurry to get there.

“And we use colloquial Lebanese, we use an Arabic title even in the English version.”