أيّ ساعة العربي؟ — What time does the Arabic start?
Life & Language: the Dictionary of the Queer International (3/4)

أيّ ساعة العربي؟ — What time does the Arabic start?

Moving back to Beirut after years abroad, Omar Mismar chats with a young barista to discover a new generation of local queer language.

It had been a year since I moved back to Beirut from the United States when I received an invitation from Yevgeniy Fiks to contribute to the Dictionary of the Queer International, three years ago. I summoned the Arabic words that I had used with or overheard from my ex, his friends, and my friends a few years earlier when I was residing in Beirut. The words almost readily came back to me, with a small mnemonic nudge from a friend around my age. I had hardly uttered them in the U.S., but when prompted to write them down, I picked up where I left off:

خصّو، يقبرها، قديرة، أيّ ساعة العربي؟

Inured to the tenacity of the many words we learn early on, that are carved into us—unwavering in their confidence and clingy to their references—I did not question the validity or obsolescence of these queer terms then. I did not for a second entertain the idea that they might have fallen out of use, or worse, that they might have aged.

I was 26 when I left Beirut, 31 when I came back, 32 when I submitted the dictionary entries—which by design appointed me a voice of queer life in Beirut—for words that I used 12 years earlier. Now at 35, I am invited to write a longer text that focuses on these dictionary entries. What the hell are gay men saying today?

I suddenly find myself irrelevant. A few years into the relationship with my boyfriend, and a few more of shrinking-by-immigrating friends’ circles and withering, already-flimsy gay circles, a year and a half of intermittent lockdowns and protests, steady economic collapse, and a haunting explosion at the Beirut Port have exiled me to my apartment. The “how are you?” question has become so laden, transcending its place within pleasantries and small talk, to an existential tribunal. I’ve been going with روعة or “magnificent” as my staple answer for some time now; the twist and the tragedy came in the utterance. With a “how are you?” positing such friction against the dialogical flow, and with barely leaving my apartment to engage in any dialogue, let alone a gay one, I felt completely and utterly inept for this task.

This domestic exile while the country is breaking down—and because of it—is symptomatic of a national paralysis that becomes internalized, stirring a latent sense of sluggishness; no task was small, no time unfitting for a joint. Replying to emails was an ordeal. Unread emails slyly invaded my inbox, spawning reminders and streaking the screen with judgmental white rows waiting to be tapped open, yet very rarely clicked open as clicking necessitated a laptop, and the laptop is always farther away than the phone.

Yet, I accepted. I said yes to writing a 1000-word essay. Candidly, the contribution fee lured me and sealed the deal. It was to be transferred from abroad to my bank and I would cash it in dollars—in fresh dollars. Fresh dollars is a term that has been in use since late 2019, when the banks confiscated people’s money, imposed illegal withdrawal limits, and took it upon themselves to convert depositors’ dollar accounts into lollars, another new term that combines lira + dollar. Lollars indicated a bank’s rate of $1=3,900 L.L at a time when the dollar in the black market spiralled from 1,500 L.L. into a soaring 18,000 L.L. One online article defines fresh dollars as US dollars from abroad that are injected directly into Lebanon’s collapsing banking sector; all sectors at that.

A digital billboard, very close to my apartment, naturally, displayed a sequence of ads. One advertised a money transfer service to facilitate the dollar injection, and another for a plastic surgeon who injects faces with Botox. Before-and-after faces adorn the digital screen, with the doctor’s number on the side. What this signals about a seriously ill country of citizens who want to save face is too lengthy to get into here and shall re-emerge in a different project. For now it will suffice to mention that we welcome muscle relaxants in all states: inhaled smoke, injected Botox, and freshly cashed dollar bills.

Fresh dollars, Lollars, Botox; queer terms alright.

The economy and the explosion, free-falling and core-rocking, left cracks in everyday speech, unlatching some words from their monogamous allusions, infusing others with cynicism, anger, despair, and dispossession.

كهربا، ماي، بنزين، طوابير، مازوت، مرفأ، فريش، أجار، مدعوم، ٦:٠٧، أمونيوم، قزاز، نيلون، إطارات، طرابلس، كرّ وفرّ، بيان، ماراتون، سوبرماركت، لحمة، التفاصيل في هذا الرابط، ٣٩٠٠، ٧٦٠ كلمة

Two people sitting at a café table. Parts of their hair and skin glow with iridescent colours.

Amidst this crumbling of language and years after putting my proposed terms to practice, of musing about them as timeless entries, and after all those months in lockdown, I venture to a coffee shop not far from my apartment, order a cup of coffee, and sit at the corner table, adamant on finding relevance. The cashier is a young man: sweet eyes, shy smile, cute messy hair. I sensed خصّو. The rainbow flag behind him might have aided in painting that picture, an emblem that was nowhere to be spotted in public when I was his age. The flag cascades behind his shoulder on the back wall, intercepting my gaydar, smudging my coded خصّو into its colour spectrum, rendering it almost obsolete.

I walk up to him, half-surrendered to the daddy vibe my request will exude, and which the white streaks on either side of my hair will corroborate. I tell him that I would like to ask him about current terms in use by young gay men. I ask him his age, and I justify my questions by telling him that I sensed خصّو 1. He says he’s 21 and that خصّو is not as common a term these days. I fully surrender to my daddy vibe.

He joins me at the table; small talk ensues and grows exponentially. The Beirut Port explosion comes up. He was getting fucked when it happened, about to orgasm. He continued through the shrapnel for a good three minutes after. He wanted it to last as long as he could, to burst into life before he rejoined the damned. “I come first. قديرة 2 # right?” he screams. He leaves me to my work and gets back to his, promising that he will email me a list of more contemporary terms.

A few days later I receive his email; I click it open. He writes: “It was ironic how you’ve asked me about the meaning of يقبرها 3 and I’ve used that word on you before haha!”

Haha indeed. يقبرها is still on the menu, I rejoice. I read his flirting as I wait for the food menu. I had been waiting for 20 minutes; the menu does not arrive. “You need to scan the QR code with your phone to view the menu,” the waitress tells me. The menu as I know it is dead, and there I was, unknowingly, at its wake, flipping through its memorial slideshow, a ghostly presence beyond QR-coded gates. يقبرها is still on the menu, some menu.

I continue reading his email. He lists a few new terms:

Passe-partout
تأكّدي
مريضة  
Tabbouleh/Salata/Tina/SiSi
مشوّبة 
 مرا
 رخيصة

I take note of these, quickly scanning the explanations he gives, but can barely keep up with my saccadic glances as they race across the screen for some information about the fourth term: أيّ ساعة العربي؟ 4 He writes to me that this term indicates “shimmy time,” and that he and his friends do not really use it anymore. They know what time Arabic music plays in clubs, even how one bar is a Nawal fan and another is a Haifa fan. I begin to draft an answer on how أيّ ساعة العربي؟ can also be a rhetorical and political question, but I end up deleting it. By insisting on it, I felt I was Botoxing it. Let it age, I suppose.

He ends his email as follows:

I will let you know about other stuff when I’m updated about them! Been a while since I’ve been in gatherings. At least ones that involve talking 😉

But a word haunts me, scars my body. I’ve been called by it before, but it rings differently now. I shall reclaim it and put it back into circulation: مفقوعة


Endnotes

[1] khasso – pertaining to.
A term used to indicate that a man pertains to the gay community. Typically murmured in settings where someone is avoiding explicit gay language.

[2] adeera – a woman of capacity.
Borrowed from descriptions of experienced robust women; refers to a seasoned gay man who’s been around the block. The term keeps the feminine suffix ة a. It connotes might, appreciation, and the ability to take it.

[3] yo’bora – may he bury her.
Uttered by gay men when they se­­e another attractive man. The term comes from تقبرني to’borni (“may you/she bury me”) or يقبرني yo’borni (“may he bury me”) which is an expression of endearment said to someone you love so much that you can’t imagine life without them, so you hope you pass away before they do, hence they would bury you. With يقبرها there is a provocation and reversal of the entrenched gendered Arabic pronouns. Instead of using the suffix of the “my” pronoun to refer to himself, which is the non-gendered ي i in يقبرني yo’borni, the gay man here uses the feminine suffix of the “her” pronoun ها ha in يقبرها yo’bora. While the masculine suffix of the “him” pronoun could have been used by saying يقبره yo’boro, the utterer’s fluidity here is at play: avoiding the non-gendered (يقبرني yo’borni) to foreground language’s gendered foundation, to then rock that foundation by reclaiming another gender.

[4] Ayya si’a el ‘arabi? – What time does the Arabic start?
A phrase that originated in gay nightclubs, uttered by clubbers waiting in anticipation of Arabic music, fed up after a few hours of House, Techno, etc. Rich in rhythmic and upbeat tunes, Arabic melodies satisfy the dancers’ bodies as they shake it, in and out of control. Off the dance floor, the phrase can be a call for changing course, decrying a monotonous state prevailing thus far and hoping to stir it up.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Omar Mismar is a visual artist based in Beirut. His practice is project-driven, probing the entanglement of art and politics, and the aesthetics of disaster. Mismar is Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at the American University of Beirut.

Illustrated by

Hagra is an artist living in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He was born in 1992 almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hagra is a transgender person and a pansexual, so naturally the study of gender and sexuality and their place in post-Soviet culture has become the main focus of his art.

From <em>Kyzteke</em> to <em>Kumsa</em>: Queer identity in the Kyrgyz language
Life & Language: the Dictionary of the Queer International (4/4)

queer tongue gloss

Written and performed by Mavi Veloso, Illustrated by Hagra

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