In his coedited book Hashem El Madani: StudioPractices (2004), the Beirut-based Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari selects, reprints, and arranges the photographs of Hashem El Madani, a studio photographer from Saida (Sidon), Zaatari’s coastal hometown in south Lebanon. The book was created to coincide with the first exhibition of El Madani’s work in the United Kingdom, which was cocurated by Zaatari at the Photographer’s Gallery in London in 2004. El Madani opened his Studio Shehrazade in Saida in 1953 and over more than fifty years created hundreds of thousands of images of Saida’s residents: brides and grooms, wrestlers and babies, and Palestinian and Syrian resistance fighters in the 1970s. The images in Hashem El Madani date from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s and tell of everyday life and the self-representational practices in the mid-twentieth-century city. Zaatari’s fascination with El Madani’s work stems from his interest in the making of modernity in Lebanon, specifically in the role of image-making practices such as studio photography. Of special interest to Zaatari is El Madani as a chronicler of everyday life in south Lebanon, a region rendered other in relation to the larger Lebanese nation by successive waves of war and Israeli occupation between 1978 and 2000.
In Hashem El Madani Zaatari as artist and curator reproduces and organizes images he finds especially significant and moving from El Madani’s vast collection. It is striking that of the thousands of negatives in El Madani’s collection, a great many of the images reprinted by Zaatari suggest gender nonconformity or same-sex [End Page 326] eroticism. This includes a series of photographs of one individual identified simply as “Abed, a tailor” (fig. 1), whom El Madani matter-offactly calls “effeminate” (Le Feuvre and Zaatari 2004, 96). The book also includes numerous reprinted images of men kissing men and women kissing women, as well as several wedding photographs of same-sex couples.
I take Zaatari’s excavation of El Madani’s photographs as paradigmatic of how queer visual aesthetic practices can destabilize nation-centric versions of area studies by allowing us to glimpse the contours of what I term queer regions.1 This essay focuses on the unsettling effects of queer region in its subnational sense, where I use the term to name the particularities of gender and sexual logics in spaces that exist in a tangential relation to the nation as it is hegemonically defined, even as these spaces are constituted through complex regional, national, and global processes. I contend that visual aesthetic practices such as Zaatari’s are also queer in resituating the region of south Lebanon as a valuable and central vantage point from which to understand nonnormative sexual and gendered embodiments and desires. Zaatari’s reprints of El Madani’s photographs bring to the fore those shadow histories, practices, subjectivities, and desires that mark the space of the region and that are occluded and deemed inconsequential not only within Lebanon’s history but within dominant nationalist historiography. As such, Zaatari’s framing of south Lebanon through El Madani’s photographs is instructive not only for queer studies scholars who work on Lebanon but also for those who work in and on other geographic and national locations.
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Crucially, queerness in Zaatari’s work becomes a conduit and an optic through which to access the shadow spaces of the past and be attuned to the ways that [End Page 327] occluded histories continue to imprint the present. For Zaatari, this queer optic reanimates nonnormative desires, practices, embodiments, and affiliations from the past and through them envisions other possibilities of social life. To be clear, I do not mean that Zaatari is involved in a project of queer recuperation, simply bringing to light images of queer subjects buried in the historical record. Rather, I contend that he transforms El Madani’s collection into a queer archive through his own affective and erotic attachment to the photographs. In other words, the queerness of the archive derives from multiple sources...