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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Post-ID: Five Lessons in Post-Identity Politics from the Postcolony (Chantal Zabus)

Post-ID: Five Lessons in Post-Identity Politics from the Postcolony

Chantal Zabus

Université Sorbonne Paris-Nord

It’s not the assertion of identity that’s important; it’s the assertion of non-identity.

Michel Foucault (qtd. in Macey xv)

No, an identity is never given, received, or attained; only the indeterminable and indefinitely phantasmatic process of identification endures.

Jacques Derrida (28)

Introduction: I-dentity Politics and Intersectionality

In English, the word “I-dentity” contains the first pronoun “I” which is often contested because it is linked to the emergence of what Dror Wahrman has called the “modern self,” that is, “an essential core of selfhood characterized by psychological depth, or interiority, which is the bedrock of unique, expressive individual identity” (Wahrman xi). Admittedly, Wahrman was discussing England in the long eighteenth century, that is, with an eye to the West. If one looks at this western “I” with a naked eye, one is struck by its anorexic slimness, for it is the thinnest pronoun in the English language; it stands tall, thin, erect, and dominant. Yet, it is not necessarily used with the same fervor in other languages, such as Chinese. In Yu Ouyang’s novel The English Class (2010), the Chinese immigrant protagonist reflects, as he is made to learn English in Melbourne, Australia:

It seems strange that in English you always say “I” do this or “I” do that but in Chinese you could write a whole story without using a single “I” as if the ←29 | 30→word “I” did not exist. But of course if “I” write the story, “I” do not have to assert “I’s” presence every time the “I” appears.

(Ouyang 55)

This skinny, almost ghostly “I,” which can disappear in some languages or leave only a trace like the grin of the fading Cheshire Cat, is twinned to a Derridean “phantasmatic” modern self.

This modern self was, however, at some point, inexorably embedded in identity politics. Identity politics may be said to emanate in the western world from the second half of the twentieth century. More particularly, the 1960s bear witness to the emergence of identitarian social movements, which galvanized into action against injustice to a particular group’s identity. Among these movements, we number the third-wave women’s movement, the US Civil Rights movement, and the gay and lesbian movement, as well as nationalist and postcolonial movements, even as these groupings fought against each other and did not always recognize that they were subjected to the same mechanisms of oppression, as for instance, civil rights and LGBT+ rights.1

Central to the practice of identity politics are, according to Vasiliki Neofotistos, “the notions of sameness and difference, and thus the anthropological study of identity politics involves the study of the politics of difference” (n.p.). Somewhat paradoxically, western identity politics places the individual within a group against a common adversary so that the individual’s difference is erased. The erasure of difference is already at work in the very etymology of “i-dentity,” from the Latin idem-unitas, that is, “sameness” and “oneness” rolled into one.

Identity politics, even in its receding garb, was dealt a cruel blow by intersectionality, as it crystallized in the 1990s. Admittedly, the figurehead of the movement, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw was addressing, in her 1991 article, “women of color” in the United States of America. Earlier attempts at an intersectional approach were made in the Global South, as in nineteenth-century colonial India by Savitribai Phule,2 but without spelling its name. Despite its controversial point of origin, intersectionality is generally seen as a late-twentieth-century research ←30 | 31→paradigm, crisscrossing race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity, in response to 1960s identity politics. By the early twenty-first century, intersectionality had been taken up not only by scholars but also by policy advocates and activists in various locations. But it has also been found guilty by association. Intersectionality has been accused of breaking “groups into even-smaller sub-groups” (Collins and Bilge 127).

In addition to the clash with intersectionality, another reason for the pending demise of identity politics is the nation-state’s fragmentation, not only because of its shifting of policies from social welfare to a neoliberal economy but also possibly because the recognition of the nation-state has engendered exacerbated forms of nationalism, as Eriksen, and Belmi et al have shown. But the potential deconstruction of national identities can also generate dangerous forms of sub-identities.

I here aim to attest to the demise of identity politics, not so much in its feuds with intersectionality as in the rise of multiple postcolonial subjectivities, as they are capable of constructing themselves from one situation to the next or from one moment to the next. I plan to do so under the extreme vetting of postcolonial literatures and cultures, from the African continent to Australasia and, in the process, I aim to develop the idea of a “post-ID” world.

The rise of multiple identities is most verifiable in the postcolonial, dismantling nation-state. Subjects in the postcolony, as Achille Mbembe reminds us, “have to have marked ability to manage not just a single identity, but several—flexible enough to negotiate as and when necessary” (Mbembe 104). The negotiation of multiple identities or, in the African context, what Masolo has called “open-ended personhoods” has thus been a token of the postcolony.

Within or outside of the postcolony, the hyphen that used to link the nation and the state has turned into a slash, pointing towards what Appadurai called “disjuncture” (Appadurai 14). This hyphenated entity fails to combine the political entity of the state and the cultural entity of the nation, where its members can recognize themselves around the use of a common descent (and a common foe) or of the same language. The mother tongue and the monolingual paradigm, which came into being in late eighteenth-century Europe and was instrumented in producing ←31 | 32→a homogeneous nation-state is now being ousted by postcolonial “languaging.”3

I. Accented Identities: Languaging in the Postcolony

Caliban’s curse in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / for learning me your language!” (1.2.362–64) – came to reflect postcolonial writers’ concerns with linguistic decolonization as of roughly the 1960s. Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, allegedly a witch, was banished from Algiers and delivered her child, Caliban, somewhere on a non-descript island in the Caribbean. That makes Caliban a second-generation immigrant of sorts on Prospero’s island, who spoke a language that Shakespeare never identifies; could it be his mother’s Arabic or possibly Amazigh? Yet he did learn the language of Prospero, possibly Milanese. This linguistic “profit,” implied in one of the most famous curses in literature, reveals tensions between the language received from mothers or other mothers and that received from Prospero as father imago.

In cursing Prospero’s father tongue, the Calibanic writer does violence to it through a series of dis-cursive tricks. In order to understand these tricks, we need to go back to the interdependence of language, culture and identity, which is more commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis (from Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf writing in the 1950s) holds that one’s worldview depends on one’s linguistic frame of reference and that the world is organized by the linguistic systems in our minds (Carroll; Mandelbaum). The structure of the “native” language is therefore thought to impact the “native” speakers’ perception and categorization of experience. The emphasis is here clearly on “nativity,” itself predicated on the “mother” in the mother tongue.

In the heyday of postcolonial theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was ousted by a new conception of language as a human construct available to “real” people. In other words, a language no longer points to one worldview and one linguistic identity; what is more, in its new transgressive usage, it no longer expresses the interests of the nation-state. In the case of English, it is no longer the language of one specific community or ethnicity. English is now spoken by more Calibans than ←32 | 33→Prosperos; that is, it is spoken by a higher number of non-native speakers than native speakers. It has been appropriated by the unruly barbarians, who have introduced a new rhythm and a new tempo.

Such rhythms undermine the authority of English, which is minorized, especially in novels staging cross-cultural encounters. For instance, in Afternoon Raag (1993), Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri’s protagonist overhears British girls and ponders: “[they spoke] in a rapid language that I hardly followed” (Chaudhuri 69). For all their “putative sovereignty,” these “native speakers” become, as Rey Chow put it in another context, “audible or discernible only when there are non-native speakers present” (Chow 58–59). While English has come to stay in India, it is, after the official language, Hindi, an associate language in a multilingual state, which boasts the largest number of second-language English speakers in the world.

After learning lessons in Arabic at the mosque, Rey Chow, who grew up in Hong Kong in the 1970s, remembers running the risk of penalties if caught speaking Cantonese on “English-speaking days” at the Anglo-Chinese secondary school she attended. Moreover, like any Hong Kong child, she had to navigate between Cantonese and the officialized Mandarin or Putongha. In Not Like a Native Speaker (2014), Rey Chow sees the native speaker as “the last bastion” remaining after “the epistemic break” that caused a minority of people (say, the English) to impose their tongue, which a majority will speak as “an external graft” (Chow 41). English thus emerges as only “a variant in an in / finite series” which hosts “any number of fits and misfits between the speaker and the prosthesis” (Chow 42), a word Chow knowingly borrows from Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthetics of Origins. Besides “having an accent,” as Chow puts it, perhaps in the double sense of possessing and taming it as well as being saddled with it, one can also “write with an accent.”

Writing with an Accent

Our present-day world hosts about 7,000 different languages (some say 6,000 or 5,000); over 5,000 “race” or ethnic groups; over 12,000 diverse cultures; and some 190 independent nation-states (as opposed to 70 or 90 in 1930, Gallaher et al 20). Most of these id-entities experienced the trauma of colonization and are thus presently faced with decolonization. When “the Empire writes back to the centre,” as Salman Rushdie and ←33 | 34→then Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin famously put it, it does not so much “write back” with a vengeance as “with an accent.” The methods used to write with an accent and to convey ideological variance cover a myriad of devices, which I have loosely designated as “indigenization” (Zabus The African Palimpsest). The Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand transliterates calques from Urdu and Punjabi; Raja Rao, for his part, uses sanskritized, Kannada-flavored English; they have indigenized English; these are textual antecedents to Salman Rushdie’s relishing concept of the chutnification of English.

“Writing with an accent” is also how the Iranian-born, American writer Taghi Modaressi described what he called his “translation” from Farsi into English of his own Persian novels such as The Pilgrim’s Rules of Etiquette (1989). Phrases like “nobody chopped any chives for him”; “dust be on their heads”; “trying to be the bean in every soup”; or “he didn’t possess any more than a sigh” clearly suggest another language than English and hint at the author’s double legacy – Farsi and English.4 This accented English points to a double identity, an accented identity. This is the written equivalent of “the xenophone,” that is, the sounds in speech that is not native to the language being spoken, and which Rey Chow has elevated to encompass “the emergent languaging domain” (Chow 59). However, this postcolonial languaging condition went at first through a phase of miserabilist dispossession, when the mother tongue cried out to be rescued from the encroaching hold of the father tongue.

In order to understand this first phase, I here zero in on Ijọ in Nigeria to show that the mother tongue in these early days of dispossession is acutely felt as a language lost and difficult to retrieve. In his one and only novel, The Voice (1964), Nigerian Gabriel Okara wrote:

“Shuffling feet turned Okolo’s head to the door. He saw three men standing silent, opening not their mouths. ‘Who are you people be?’ Okolo asked. The people opened not their mouths. ‘If you are coming-in people be, then come in’ (Okara 26). Okara arranged to have English constantly suggest Ijọ, his mother tongue. As I have ascertained, with help from Gabriel Okara, who acted as native linguistic informant, Okara has been faithful to his mother-tongue as a site of nativity and pure origin. But what if this mother tongue itself is “not really monolingual, homogeneous and fully familiar?” asks Yasemin Yildiz (67) in relation to ←34 | 35→Adorno. Okara’s mother tongue is Ijọ but he could not write in it. He is faithful to an absent mother, as it were.

The mother tongue is often deemed itself “faithful,” as in Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Miłosz’s poem, “Faithful Mother Tongue” (1968):

Faithful mother tongue

I have been serving you.

Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colours

so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch

as preserved in my memory.

Miłosz’s mother tongue appears as an exacting matron, who pulls the threads of filial memory, which in turn modulates into the speaker’s faithful representation of the native land but he cautions, his mother tongue, Polish, is also “a tongue of the debased,” “a tongue of informers” (Miłosz 90). During the same decade, in 1964 in the Nigerian postcolony, Okara’s mother tongue is equated with the mother land desecrated by the sons of the greedy and corrupt postcolony.

Okara does not, however, translate Ijọ into English in that he does not aim at recoding the original according to the norms of the target language; he indigenizes; more specifically, he relexifies:

“Shuffling feet turned Okolo’s head to the door” (Okara 70)

Ijọ: Sísírí sìsìrì wẹnibuòàmọ Òkòló tẹbẹ wàimọ wáríbuọ dìamẹ*

Shuffling moving-feet Okolo’s head turned door faced

(Zabus, The African Palimpsest 138)

In this Ijoized English, such morpho-syntactic innovations as the postponement of the verb or of the negative can be traced to Ijọ syntactical patterns. The syntax is here so altered that a counter-value system is created that jeopardizes the English logocentric relation between word and referent, signifier and signified. Additionally, the “Ear of the Other,” as Derrida called it (l’oreille de l’autre) has always complicated the language-identity nexus, as for instance in the way the French phrase Allemands in Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel, Monnè, outrages, défis (1990) was thought to designate “messengers of Allah” in Mali during the Second World War.

Does that mean that English is losing credence or disappearing? Ironically, it could be argued that Okara’s experiment helped recirculate ←35 | 36→English at the expense of a micro-language like Ijọ condemned to orality. In this form of linguicide, the African tongue falls prey to a textual glottophagia. English ‘devours’ the African etymons and morphemes, which now function as the linguistic debris of a minor, possibly endangered, language. However, those, like Skutnabb-Kangas (2000), who posit English as a Killer language and predict that by 2100, 90 % of the world languages will be dead or on death row voice their distrust of English in English so that these propounders of linguistic human rights soon become tangled up in an inevitable dialectics.

Kenyan writer and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who, with his colleagues, called in the 1960s for the dissolution of the English Department in Nairobi, when English identity was to be ousted by a pristine Kikuyu identity, is now calling for globalectics. The “globalectical imagination” entails a move away from monolingualism, monoliterature, and monoculturalism and away from the “view of literatures (languages and cultures) relating to each other in terms of a hierarchy or power”; hence the globalectical imagination “assumes that any center is the center of the world.” Yet, languages are hierarchized, and if they are thought to be equal, some of them are more equal than others. If, for Ngũgĩ, translation emerges as “the language of languages” (Ngũgĩ 61), Bowman warns, along with Rey Chow, that translation immediately problematizes “the ontological hierarchy of languages” (Bowman 155). Since Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o prescribed in 1986 that African literatures should be written in indigenous languages, African writers and theoreticians like Njabulo S. Ndebele and Evan Maina Mwangi have been skeptical. Mwangi reckons that, even if “no one can disagree with Ngũgĩ’s appeal for the promotion and preservation of Africa’s indigenous languages,” it is possible to express one’s identity in any language (Mwangi 225).

Ngũgĩ made the original rallying call for the use of indigenous languages in the 1960s. Okara wrote The Voice immediately after Nigerian independence, in the mid-1960s, when doing textual violence to English was a necessary form of linguistic decolonization. This was, with hindsight, a time when the cleavage was conveniently binary: English / African language; colonized / colonizer; mother tongue / other tongue. But after independence ran its course, the European language resurfaced in unexpected ways and writers became unfaithful to their mother tongue.

←36 | 37→

Abjected Mother Tongues

The formerly dominant European languages like English or French may, in some contexts, appear race-neutral or beyond ethnicities. For instance, English was de-emphasized in favor of Malay (Bahasa Melayu) after Malaysia’s independence in 1957. In Article 160 of the Constitution, a Malay is defined as “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom” and is domiciled in Malaysia (Art. 160 sec. 2). However, during the ten-year transition period that ensued, English was positioned, as Michelle O’Brien contends, “as an ostensibly race-neutral medium since it did not ‘belong’ to any of Malaysia’s three dominant racial groups” (O’Brien 2), that is, the Malay / Bumiputra, Chinese, and Indian groups. For the Malay female writer Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “Malay [is] an abjected mother-tongue” (qtd. in Gunew 60), another(ed) tongue. Lim favors the univocity of English and objects to the “too many names, too many identities, too many languages” in Malaysia (and Singapore for that matter) against what she reads as “canonical English literature’s relatively univocal approach to identity construction” (Lim 20, 16).

‘In the postmigrant German context, Feridun Zaimoğlu, a Turkish-German writer, who belongs to what Yasemin Yildiz has called “a transnational posse” (186), has used hip-hop-and-rap-imbued English to break down “the binary between one-dimensional affiliations with either Turkish or German” (189) in some sort of motherless, post-id(entity) English. Similarly, in the Rainbow island of Mauritius, the interstices between languages, religions, and ethnicities produced many mismatches: for instance, the Christian faith cannot be affixed to a single language as is the case with Hindi and Hinduism on an island where Hindus, the descendants of indentured laborers from India, constitute the religious majority and the political elite. The diasporic kinship based on ancestral ties with India logs Mauritius into “a neocolonial, island / continent relationship” with India (Ravi 88). As a result, French appears as a de-ethnicized language, and Mauritian novels by Hindu-Mauritian writers writing in French like Ananda Devi, Natacha Appanah, or Amal Sewtohul have exposed religious bigotry and given voice to the marginalized such as the Catholic mixed race and African Creoles.

Conversely, Jhumpa Lahiri who was born in England, of Bengali ancestry, and moved to the United States and has won prizes for her fiction in English, has abandoned English and written her novel In Altre ←37 | 38→Parole (2015) in Italian. She describes herself as “a writer who doesn’t belong to any language” and asks: “How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine?” (Lahiri 166–67). In this almost post-postcolonial gesture, the accent definitely falls on another syllable of identity.

II. The DNA of Identity

If identity is a “coalescence” or “a coherent kind of human social psychology,” this “coalescence” of “mutually responsive (if sometimes conflicting) modes of conduct, habits of thought, and patterns of evaluation” (Appiah 105) can be broken into its constituent modes and patterns. It is now possible through taking a DNA Identity Test with the National Geographic “Genographic Project.” The test breaks down the constituent parts of where one’s ancestors have come from. The Sri-Lankan writer Rajith Savanadasa took one of these tests and reported:

As I discovered, I’m 57 % Southwest Asian (genes found in people from India, Iran, etc), another 32 % Southeast Asian and 10 % Mediterranean (in some cases the regional percentages don’t add up to a 100). […] And the Southwest Asian genes are also shared with Tamils, which is something that a lot of Sinhalese won’t acknowledge. They won’t see we’re all partly Indian, and the Tamils would be very close to us, genetically.

(Watkins 9)

Likewise, Shani Mootoo, who was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, and then moved to Canada and explores the lives of Caribbean Indians compounded by a transnational queer Nation perspective, asked: “What is my point of origin? How far back need I go to feel properly rooted? I must be looking for an Indian Cro-Magnon” (Mootoo 64). An “Indian Cro-Magnon,” as Mootoo puts it tongue-in-cheek, is as ludicrous as the idea that “Black “Egyptians” were descendants of “white” cro-Magnon man.

From Neither Black nor White to Both / And

Among the “Egyptianists,” one numbers Senegalese Cheikh Anta Diop who, in his essay on “Africa, Cradle of Humanity,” writes:

The man born in Africa was necessarily dark-skinned due to the considerable force of ultraviolet radiation in the equatorial belt. As he moved towards the ←38 | 39→more temperate climates, this man gradually lost his pigmentation by process of selection and adaptation. It is from this perspective that the appearance of Cro-Magnon Man in Europe must be seen. […] Therefore, Cro-Magnon did not come from anywhere. He is rather the product of mutation of the Grimaldian negroid where he was found […].

(Anta Diop 27)

As Yehudi Webster has remarked, Diop’s “efforts to identify white and black races, 5 million years ago when facial forms were surely Simian” run amock because “Egyptian and Greek civilizations cannot be classified according to the race of their builders; they were neither black nor white” (Webster 66).

Like “Blackness,” itself considered today as being on the verge of a “breakdown” (Cohen), “whiteness” has its limits when applied before the entrenchment of racial classification in the nineteenth century. For instance, to talk about white early settlement in Virginia erases the British lack of self-perception as “white.” In Before the Mayflower, historian Lerone Bennett wrote that “legal documents identified whites [in the seventeenth century] as Englishmen and / or Christians. The word white, with its burden of arrogance and biological pride, developed late in the century, as a direct result of slavery and the organized debasement of blacks” (Bennett 40). The notion of “racial classification,” that is, the attempt to create a hierarchy of races, originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with e.g. Georges Cuvier, Carl Von Linnaeus, Arthur de Gobineau. Despite the potential furthering of classification in interventions like Anthias’s and Anthias and Yuval-Davis’, all agree on the difficulties encountered in finding unambiguous labels and often use the case of the US census, itself the dubious result of the first mathematical conjectures produced by IBM’s famous punch cards, which also served to improve aerial bombing efficiency.

In that regard, Melinda Mills cannot remember, for the 2010 US Census, what choice she made: “Did I write in ‘biracial’ under the ‘some other race’ option? Or check ‘white’ and ‘black’ as I usually identify?” (Mills ix). Being from Saint Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, which is part of unincorporated territory in the Caribbean Sea, she has white and black parentage. While inhabiting a “ ‘black + white=brown body,” she finds it “ironic to claim whiteness without contestation” (xii) and cannot claim being “biracial” either as it is “more than ‘black and white’ ” (ix). She further distinguishes between different ways in which ←39 | 40→US multiracial people “border patrol” themselves; her interviewees challenge the “ ‘two-and-only two’ race logic” and reveal a spectrum of shades from “vanilla whiteness” or “ ‘peach’ […] honorary white” to “optional people of color” and “white people of color” (Mills 175, 169). Mills’ efforts at dismantling US pigmentocracy and highlighting common failures at authenticity tests may be seen as being part of a movement “after race” (Gilroy) and that of “relationality,” a thinking concurrent with intersectionality which rejects “either / or binary thinking, opposing blacks to whites, for instance,” and “embraces a both / and frame” (Collins and Bilge 24, italics in original). But even the both / and frame cannot conveniently accommodate such protean multiracial identities such as Hispanics, for instance, and those exposed by Mills’ qualitative research. Meanwhile, Iranians and other Middle-easterners in post-9/11 United States face potential reclassification “out of ‘the white box’ ” (Maghbouleh 105).

The in-betweenness of Mills’ interviewees is dramatized in a scene in Michele Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven (1987) during which Boy Savage, who can pass as white, is trying to enroll his light-skinned Jamaican daughter, Clare, in a New York City high school. When asked about his “race” and he replies “white … of course,” the female educator catches on with his equivocation and ventriloquizes her husband, a “Christian” physician, when she tells Boy: “He would call you white chocolate. … I don’t want to be cruel, Mr. Savage, but we have no room for lies in our system. No place for in-betweens” (Cliff 99). Yet, in-betweenness points to the borders of “race,” which have become so elusive that some countries such as France and Brazil have done away – albeit controversially – with the word “race” in their jurisdiction.5

If “race” has been considered by some as a subset of ethnicity, “race” has also been enlarged upon to incorporate the notion of “ethnicity” which, to e.g. Ali Rattansi, comprises “language, religion, notions of a common origin, codes of kinship, marriage, and dress, forms of cuisine, and so forth” (Rattansi 257). Regardless of whether race or ethnicity came first, it is worth remembering that so-called African “tribes,” in colonial terminology, did not perceive themselves as ethnic groups. Such is the case with the Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria before the 1960s Biafran ←40 | 41→war gave them political awareness and self-perception as Igbo. Such a claim is corroborated in Chinua Achebe’s short story, “The Sacrificial Egg” (1959), which documents the plague of smallpox in Umuru, a palm-oil port in pre-independence Nigeria. The protagonist Julius Obi’s thoughts serve as a conduit for Achebe’s portrayal of the Igbo as “forest peoples” as opposed to “the other half of the world who lived by the great rivers,” especially the Anambra (Igbo: Ányìm ׅOma Mbala) which throws itself into the Niger River and is released into the Atlantic. When Justus Obi calls “the riverain folk” Olu or “alien,” he is referring to Central as opposed to western clans (Achebe 1–2). War or conflict as in the Biafran War in Nigeria can force identity onto peoples who otherwise had no such self-perception.

Identities under Occupation: The Limits of Whiteness

Sara Ahmed has contended that whiteness is not reducible to white skin, but is “a regime, a ‘straightening’ device, an effect of what coheres, of what allows certain bodies to move with comfort through space and so inhabit the world as if it were home” (Ahmed 135–36). By alluding to Whites’ alleged comfort in “mov[ing] […] through space,” Ahmed is talking about space on earth. What about space out there? The world is now entering a non-anthropocentric phase of war. War is now both macro-cosmic (outer-spatial, climate-based, atmospheric) and micro-cosmic (inter-spatial, neurological, cybernetic). Against this canvas of unprecedented planetary violence, whiteness in military parlance is synonymous with “civilian”: red means foe; blue means friend; and white means civilian, so that White Afghans refers to Afghan civilians. In that sense, Mike Hill reasons, whiteness is treated as “a local (and temporary) condition of military inactivity” (Hill 223). Additionally, war in the “aerial empire” is forcing scholars and strategists alike to rethink the boundaries of what it means to be a human being in a post-human world.

In its post-human vision, Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome straddles the human / non-human boundaries by foregrounding Egyptian-born Antar, a computer programmer. From his apartment in near-future Manhattan, Antar sees on his screen a former colleague (Murugan)’s illegible bar-coded identity card from a holograph generated by his computer Ava, which gently swivels on him its laser-guided surveillance camera “eye.” While on leave in Calcutta in the 1990s, Murugan had disappeared while on an obsessive quest for the real-life, ←41 | 42→1902 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, Ronald Ross, himself researching malaria transmission in British-occupied India. This foray into machine / human interface also helps connect Antar’s hyperobjective world with the allegedly primitive Victorian Indian culture. Hence the post-postcolonial “joke” on British scientific “discovery”: “ ‘[Ronald Ross] thinks he is doing experiments on the malaria parasite. And all the time it’s him who is the experiment on the malaria parasite. But Ronnie never gets it; not to the end of his life’ ” (Ghosh 78). Viral transmission is then re-read as AI data transmission through algorithms. What Ghosh names the “malaria vector” (77) thus enables Antar, an almost augmented cyberagent, not only to time-travel but also to dissolve the binaries of East / West, colonizer / colonized subject, science / religion, and human / nonhuman.6

On the greener side of the fence, where Ghosh’s green data do not obtain, Andean anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena has put forward a “pluriversal politics,” which includes other-than-human actors, whom she terms “earth beings,” such as rocks, and points towards the posthuman “in which responsibilities are extended beyond traditional Western conceptions of the ‘human’ ” (de la Cadena 334–70). After all, three million years ago there was no Homo Sapiens in the world, as Harari almost nostalgically reminds us in Sapiens. The Indigenous movements of First Nations worldwide, from North America to Australasia, have in that respect offered a blueprint for survival in the face of planetary apocalypse.

Outside of aerial occupation, Israeli anthropologist Smadar Lavie has explored what happens when military occupation on earth forcibly divides a people. The Mzeina Bedouin, a tribe of approximately 5,000 people, is the largest of the South Sinai Țawara intertribal alliance. During the Arab-Israeli conflict, the South Sinai shifted hands five times under Egyptian and Israeli rule. Lavie observes that this constant military occupation “precluded for the Mzeina the identity that both turn-of-the century travelers’ accounts and contemporary nostalgic literature or media accounts inscribed for the Bedouin: fierce romantic nomads on loping camels in the vast desert” (Lavie 6). As a result, their Bedouin identity has been cast as an allegory and their identitarian DNA has been somewhat cloned. The literary means which the Mzeinis use to express that allegorical identity is performance or mime, whereby each creative ←42 | 43→individual “plays a character based on his or her own identity: the Sheikh, the Madwoman, the Ex-Smuggler, the Old Woman, the Fool, the Symbolic Battle Coordinator, and the One Who Writes Us.” Embedded in these performances, Lavie concludes, is “the poetics of military occupation” (7). The result is that, in their mimetic theatre, the Mzeinis can only represent themselves.

Besides, the pending disappearance of whiteness to designate the “white race” falls into step with attempts to dislodge the apparently “universal epistemological power” of whiteness (Wiegman 150) so that in a not so distant future, one may no longer be “white by definition.” In her book of the same name, Virginia R. Dominguez examines “social classification” among Louisiana’s Creoles, who can choose from “a large number of potential identities by ancestry alone” (Dominguez 263). Because such individuals inevitably cross borders, they “manipulate criteria of classification” (xiv). Likewise, in Puerto Rico, similar shifts in the social composition of the population could not have occurred “if whiteness had been based on the principle of purity of white ancestry” (275). Interestingly, Dominguez wrote her 1993 book from Jerusalem where, as a “non-Jew in a Jewish state,” she was struck by the questions in Israel’s fourth national census: are you, the form asked, “ ‘(1) Jewish, (2) Moslem, (3) Greek Orthodox, (4) Latin, (5) Catholic, (6) Christian—other (specify), (7) Druze, (8) other (specify)?’ ” Alongside four Christian denominations, one finds Islam and a movement that broke off from Islam, the Druze community that calls itself in Arabic muwaḥḥidūn or “unitarians.” Among these questions, which avoid the obvious one – “Are you Arab?” –, “the secular Jew, Jewish by ancestry,” as Dominguez observes, “finds it difficult not to check off the box identifying him as Jewish” (xiii). Both religious and lay classifications are wrought with paradox, which points to an endless deferral of identification and, in the long term, a move outside of the naming of identity.

III. Religious “Allegiances”

Raymonda Tawil, a Palestinian writer and journalist, published her memoirs, My Home, My Prison in 1978. Born into an urban bourgeois Christian family, she became after 1948, the year of Al-Nakbah or the Catastrophe, a citizen of the Israeli State. She then engaged with local modes of sociability and solidarity, an international network of resistance, as well as both Palestinian grassroots movements and Israeli ←43 | 44→leftist groups. Because of her politics of solidarity and dialogue, she was accused of dealing with the Zionist enemy. In her philanthropy, she warns against “both fetishizing the production of a Manichean colonial epistemology that posits the self against its Other, Palestinians against Zionists, victims against oppressors.” Defying binaries, Tawil redefines “the mythic codification of the Jewish diaspora by calling the Palestinians ‘the new Jews’ ” (Tawil 77).

This statement resonates with Theodor Adorno’s “Fremdwörter sind die Juden der Sprache” in Minima Moralia (1945). These Fremdwörter referred to the German words of foreign derivation as the Jews of language in the sense in which “Jews are deemed unchangeably and irredeemably foreign by Antisemites” (Yildiz 84–85). Tawil, who is not in dialogue with Adorno, noted:

Any person of conscience—Jew or Christian—should acknowledge this injustice, whereby the persecuted survivors of Nazi concentration camps were given a home by making the Palestinians homeless. “We are like you,” I told my Jewish listeners. “We Palestinians are the Jews of the Arab World.”

(Tawil 201)

Reflecting on Tawil’s incentive to examine Jewish “privatization of pain,” Khader concludes: “In short, Tawil reconfigures Levantine subject positions, allowing for an ethical universalization of the experience of pain, while also inversing the traditional signifiers of Jewish history to prevent the exploitative commodification of Auschwitz or Al-Nakbah” (Khader 127). Palestine, the “land without a people for a people without a land,” as the 1947 Zionist project had it, has been claimed by postcolonial theory on the grounds that Israel was fashioned as a settler colonial project and in that sense, is not different from Canada, the United States or South Africa. “What makes Israel unique,” opines Gershwon Shafir, “is that it is a belated settler colony which was launched in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and, even more so, that it continues the colonization through which it was formed into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (Shafir 339). In that respect, Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani’s work, especially his Palestinian Resistance Literature under the Occupation 1948–1968 (1986), and his short life (he was thirty-six when he was assassinated in Beirut) testify to the status of refugee-cum-homo sacer, which Giorgio Agamben has identified as “a limit concept that radically calls into question the fundamental categories of the nation-state” (Agamben 134) in a post-national world.

←44 | 45→

Admittedly, Raymonda Tawil’s memoir was written in 1978, a few months before the fourteenth session of the Palestine National Council held in Damascus, Syria, that is, at a time when the questioning of the very foundational narratives of Palestinian identity, struggle, and national unity was not the same as today. Recalling how an Israeli-Moroccan soldier defended the villagers of Kalkilya after the 1967 war and scolded his troopers’ humiliating tactics – “ ‘You people don’t have a heart! Don’t you have a home, a family? Is this Judaism? You ought to remember Auschwitz’ ” (Tawil 100) –, Tawil emphasizes the common humanity of Israelis and Palestinians. In pointing to the slipperiness of identities under occupation, Tawil anticipates Edward Said’s humanistic vision of Palestine and Israel trapped in a Self / Other binary.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, who was raised in Germany under the name Ludwig Pfeuffer, speaking both German and Hebrew, was the first poet to write in colloquial Hebrew. In “Lamentation for Those Who Die in War,” he penned the following verses:

A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.

A window display of beautiful women’s

Dresses in blue and white. And everything

In three languages: Hebrew Arabic Death.

(Bloch and Michell 123).

Here, the third term in this triglossia is death while Hebrew and Arabic are locked in a deadly combat over religion. The third term or “third code” is not always synonymous with death, as one recalls that Franz Kafka, torn between Yiddish, the oral mother tongue, and Hoch Deutsch (High German), settled for the de-territorialized German of Prague (Deleuze and Guattari). Kafka settled for a third ground outside of identitarian binaries, as if to champion a fertile DNA compost of impurities.

Deadly Identities

According to Amin Maalouf, the Christian, Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-born French author, one cannot have several identities. Born in Beirut in 1949, Maalouf has lived in France since 1976, one year after the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. He was elected to the Académie française in 2011. His country of origin, Lebanon, is composed ←45 | 46→of an Islamic and a Christian community, each of those divided in sub-communities and each of these sub-communities has attempted to impose its own perception of the nation-state.

Maalouf writes that he does not feel “half-French, half-Lebanese”: “The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities; I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions” (“A New Concept” n.p.). Despite this disclaimer, Maalouf does not believe in a monolithic identity, but in an identitarian conglomerate of what he called “allegiances.” Individuals may murder in the name of a single and singular identity, when one of these composite “allegiances” like religion – but it could be a nation or a language – is threatened. Likewise, MacLean and Webber have argued that “[m]ost people would assert that their identity consists of clear-cut elements, including religion, sex, sect, nationality (possibly double), ethnicity and language; some would add to this list profession and class” (156–73). Taking as her cue Peter Zima’s work on Subjectivity and Identity (2015), Hanan Ibrahim has analyzed Maalouf’s Deadly Identities as evincing the belief that “a neurotic obsession with a singular aspect of identity is evidence of psychic loss that is conducive to violence” (Ibrahim 842).

Maalouf illustrates his distrust of the one, single “allegiance” in his novel, Ports of Call, originally written in French (1991). Maalouf follows a young couple: a Muslim man and a Jewish woman, who had a daughter, Nadia, who is both Muslim and Jewish:

I, her father, am Muslim, at least on paper; her mother is Jewish, at least in theory. With us, religion is transmitted through the father; among Jews, through the mother. Therefore, according to the Muslims, Nadia was Muslim; according to the Jews, she was Jewish. She herself might have chosen one or the other, or neither, she chose to be both at once. […] She was proud of all the bloodlines that had converged in her, roads of conquest or exile from central Asia, Anatolia, the Ukraine, Arabia, Bessarabia, Armenia, Bavaria. […] She refused to divide out her blood, her soul.

(Ports of Call 13)

In Maalouf’s historical novel, Leo the African (1994), the protagonist Muhammad Ibnul Wazzan embraces what could be labelled a phantasmatic, circumstantial identity, what Ibrahim calls “an evolving identity” (842). Wazzan addresses his son thus: “[…] you will hear my mouth speaking Arabic and Turkish […] because I own all the languages ←46 | 47→and all the prayers but I do not belong to any of them. […] In Rome, I was only the son of the African, and in Africa, you will be the son of the Roman” (Leo the African 398; qtd. in Ibrahim 842). In In An Antique Land (1992), the already quoted Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh points to the enmeshment of Jewish and Arab identities through the Arabic script, the name “Allah” as a pre-Islamic deity, and the enabling mosaic of Middle-eastern cultures. Following Ben Yiju, the Jewish merchant of medieval Cairo, and his “friends,” Ghosh remarks:

[they] were all orthodox, observant Jews, strongly aware of their distinctive religious identity. But they were also part of the Arabic-speaking world, and the everyday language of their religious life was one shared with the Muslims of that region: when they invoked the name of God in their writings it was usually as Allah, and more often than not their invocations were in Arabic forms, such as inshâ’ allâh and al-ḥamdul-illâh. Distinct though their faith was, it was still a part of the religious world of the Middle East—and that world was being turned upside down by the Sûfis, the mystics of Islam.

(Ghosh 261, my emphasis)

Even though Ghosh only hints at “the religious world of the Middle East,” he, like Maalouf, warns against the Jewish / Arab divide.

In Maalouf’s most recent French-language novel, Les désorientés (2012) which was translated into Arabic (Al-Tai’hoon 2013), the middle-aged protagonist, suggestively called Adam, is surrounded by friends who embody a range of identities: Aber, the liberal Christian; Ramiz, the opportunist Muslim who settled in Amman, Jordan; Kithar, the homosexual who fled to the United States; Nai’m, the escapist Jew who sought asylum in Sao Paulo; Nidal, the eloquent Islamist; and Ramzi, the observant Christian who joined a monastery, with whom Adam will drive their car off a cliff. While Ramzi is killed on the spot, Adam falls into a coma and, according to his French girlfriend, he is “sentenced to deferral,” (The Disoriented 505) “like his country,” which is never identified but may be construed as Lebanon. Hanan Ibrahim has construed Adam’s deferral as “emblematic of his reluctance to commit to an identity” (837). As his coma suggests, Adam literally remains supine between closure and awakening. This positional oscillation between faith and agnosticism and the concomitant fate of suspension is suggestive of Amin Maalouf’s plea for ambivalence and deferral in identity construction.

Maalouf’s stance is admittedly a far cry from the Algerian philosopher and emblematic figure of the Islamic Reform movement in Algeria, ←47 | 48→Cheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis, who wrote at the beginning of the past century: “Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, and Algeria is my country” (64, my translation). Here, religion, language, and nationalism are rolled into one, while denying other identities like Lebanese Arabic-speaking Christians or Berbers using Amazigh and local variants thereof in Algeria and Morocco. Maalouf’s oeuvre aims to deconstruct the triangular stronghold of identity politics and to highlight the need to disambiguate religious, linguistic and national allegiances.

Striated Identities

By “striated identities,” we allude to Deleuze and Guattari’s 1988 premise that the (relative) smoothness of the ocean became “striated” or gridded with maps traversed with nautical charts, meridians, longitudes and other measurables that they trace back to 1440 and the onset of the great explorations. I here understand “striated” as also being gridded by various identitarian markers that complexify I-dentity and gesture towards a post-identity. As a case in point, Yousafzai’s bestselling autobiography, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban (2013), co-authored with journalist Christine Lamb, has engendered doubt about identity politics and the representation of Pakistani women behind I am Malala. Among the responses to the “I am,” we number a Pakistani teacher’s launching initiative of the “I am Not Malala Day” and Davis Guggenheim’s film, He Named Me Malala, which documents the aftermath of Yousafzai’s murder.

In the Guggenheim documentary, one interviewee says: “Her father wrote everything for her. That’s why she is so famous.” And another: “[Malala] is just [the name] of a character. It can be anyone. She’s a girl, she don’t [sic] know anything” (Guggenheim). Whereas the interviewees dismiss her agency by proxy, the tract I am not Malala: I am Muslim, I am Pakistani attempts to restore striated Pashtun identities, with adherence to Islam holding pride of place, and the nation-state coming second, while “Pashtun” points to a cluster of identities, between ethnic Afghans and Iranian natives in South Asia, spread over Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Shirin Nadira has pointed out, the Yousafzai-Lamb autobiography’s “descriptions of Pashtun identity destabilizes the narrow-mindedly nationalist rhetoric of I am Not Malala and offers clearer insight into the nature of the conflict in Swat” (Nadira 19n3), a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan.

←48 | 49→

In the United States, in the 1990s, the case of Fauziya Kassindja, an eighteen-year-old Muslim, Togolese woman refugee drummed up U.S. media attention. Upon arriving in the United States, she spent two years in four prisons and, finally, in 1996, she demonstrated to the American Board of Immigration Appeals that she had good reasons to fear kakia or excision (also called Female Genital Mutilation or Female Genital Cutting) in her native Togo.7

The Qur’an helps her through her exile. But her sense of identity is shaped by a three-tiered allegiance, which she details in her prison-memoir, Do They Hear You when you Cry? (1998). Kassindja is first Tchamba-Koussountou through her father’s tribe; then Muslim; and third, a member of the Kpalimé community in northern Togo, near the Ghanaian border. She is also a full-fledged member of her extended family, which, along with religion, is “what keeps people in [her] community together” and includes “[a]nyone related to [her] by blood, tribe or marriage” as well as “friends” (Kassindja 75, 101). As a child, she spoke Tchamba, Koussountou, Dendi, Hausa, Twi, and English, which made her the obvious candidate to be later schooled in English-speaking Ghana. But these striated allegiances did not go down smoothly with US Customs when she entered the United States via Germany from French-speaking Togo yet speaking the English language of Ghana. After many tribulations, she is now American.

All diasporic identities share these multiple, striated allegiances. In theorizing diaspora, Stuart Hall has reminded us of the old, imperialist and hegemonic definition of diaspora as “those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must return, even if it means pushing the other people into the sea” (Theorizing 244). Stuart Hall is exemplary of this tendency initiated in the 1990s in diaspora studies of conceiving the diasporic experience “not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity, by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite difference, by hybridity” (Hall “Cultural” 235; qtd. in Smith 257). Thus, the concept of “hybrid identities” was ushered in. Fauziya Kassindja, as many Afrosporic women fleeing persecution or, simply poverty, or a nexus of oppressing factors, find a second or third or superordinate lease on life in diasporic western cities. But queer desire, ←49 | 50→as Gayatri Gopinath holds, “reorients the traditionally backward-looking glance of diaspora” (Gopinath 3). It further grids the identity nexus.

IV. Sexual Dissidence

What Gopinath calls “queer desire” further skews the notion of a stable identity. Diriye Osman, who is originally Somali but has lived in Kenya and currently lives in London, writes about his alter ego in a short story, “The Other (Wo)man” (2013): “He didn’t belong to just one society. […] He was Somali first, Muslim second, gay third” (137). In the process, this forward-looking queer desire also obfuscates the family, which is to be left behind as one of the providers of identitarian allegiance. However, British Muslim communities may not provide the help Osman and his alter ego may seek in that they are incongruously aligned with the British New Right. What Ali Rattansi has called “incongruous alliances” also extends to the anti-semitism that ties “the black nationalism of the African-American Louis Farrakhan and elements of the white American extreme right—anti-Semitism being one of the uniting political strands—and in South Africa, not so long ago, between sections of the Zulu population and white right-wing groups, each demanding separate ‘homelands’ ” (Rattansi 257).

Shifty Labels

These shifty alliances point to the very incongruousness of identity politics and the need to acknowledge “grey zones” in the oppressor / oppressed divide and in any other convenient binary. Also, such movements or groupings like members of the Nation of Islam, orthodox Jews or Wahabite Muslims often assert their masculinities at the expense of women and sexual dissidents. Oddly, some Palestinian males lay claim to a similar prowess. An instance may be found in Yuval-Davis and Anthias’ recounting of a popular, male Palestinian saying of the 1980s which referred to the higher birthrates among the Palestinian population: ‘The Israelis beat us at the borders but we beat them in the bedrooms’ ” (Yuval-Davis and Anthias 8).

In Nigerian novelist Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (2015), Islam takes on various ideological hues. Malam Abdul-Nur takes advantage of the hospitalization of his protector, the benevolent Sheikh ruling over ←50 | 51→Sokoto in Northern Nigeria, to harangue the crowds against Shia and burn down their mosques, thereby creating a cleavage between the Sunni and the Shia. As soon as Abdul-Nur becomes the radical Islamist leader of boko haram (although this movement is never named), he treats his wife as a “donkey” and “forces things into her … into her … anus! Candles. Bottles. He flogs her with the tyre whip when they are doing it. Some days she faints’ ” (John 149). By dwelling on Abdul-Nur’s harsh sexual and religious practices, Elnathan John hints at gender trouble in handling masculinity but also at an islamicate cluster of repressed homosexualities.

Elnathan John, who, in his “Elnathan’s dark corner” blog refused to “give a definition beyond whom [he has or has not had] penetrative sex with” (n.p.), shows, throughout his narrative, compassion for women and young men forced to have same-sex sex in cockroach-infested lavatories. He also endearingly features the kohl-eyed ‘yan daudu, male “gender outlaws” who are part of an ancestral institution generally accepted in Islamized Northern Nigeria and gleefully argue that “Allah made us” (Gaudio 2009). Elnathan John further asked: “I have wondered if sexuality is fixed or if it is a continuum—a scale with well-oiled wheels. Are people always either this or that- gay or straight or bisexual? How well do labels work? Do they work?” (emphasis in original). In his 2013 blog, John comes close to Foucault’s emphasis on the importance of “the assertion of non-identity,” as in my epigraph, and therefore of the need to embrace a sexual continuum.

It remains that Islam and homosexualities are seen by many as deeply incompatible and this alleged mismatch drives individuals like Diriye Osman to leave their homeland and to inhabit borders. Another border-example concerns Nina Bouraoui, who incarnates the striated history between the Maghreb and France. Born from an Algerian father and a French mother, Bouraoui writes in Garçon Manqué (2000), translated as Tomboy (2007): “Every morning, I check my identity […] French? Algerian? Girl? Boy?” (PP, my translation).8 This identitarian problem is complicated by her being a woman who desires other women. In Poupée Bella (2004), she writes: “I am in the time of my homosexuality” (23, my translation).9 Her resistance to the fixed categories – French / Algerian and girl / boy – allows Bouraoui to partake of a fluidity, that migration to ←51 | 52→France is, however, going to contain. She, possibly unwittingly, retaliates by never using the word “lesbian” (lesbienne). In one of his short stories, “J’aime les filles” (2013), Moroccan Hicham Tahir features two female lovers, who both confirm that “neither boys nor girls were [their] cup of tea” (Tahir 54, my translation)10 and therefore locates same-sex desire outside of the homosexual / heterosexual divide, in a multigendered perspective.

Slippery Contenders

The Arabic coinage al-mithliyyah لمثلية is a recent invention patterned on the combination of the Greek original word for “sameness” and the Latin word for “sex” (as in “homosexuality”), whereas ghayriyah غيرية renders differentness (also altruism) or heterosexuality. These new words come to replace the coinage al-shudhuudh al-jinsi, الجنسي الشذوذ or literally “the deviance / deviation of sex,” itself possibly a translation from the European, end-of-nineteenth-century medical conception of “sexual inversion.”

In Desiring Arabs (2007), Massad has targeted the white male European or American gay scholars’ “missionary” explanations of what they mean by “homosexuality” in Arab and Muslim history. Massad has also taken a few stabs at the “Gay International’s” obsession with romantic coupling and its discursive transformation of practitioners of same-sex contact into homosexual or gay subjects (Massad 172, 184). One of the earliest novelistic expressions of male same-sex desire in twentieth-century Arabic literature is to be found in Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz’s Zuqāq al-Midaq (1947, Midaq Alley), which features Kirshah, a café owner and married man, who has a preference for boys. Such a preference is tolerated as would be a mistress, until he goes public and his wife causes a social scandal. Mahfouz therefore uses the term shudhuudh to refer to Kirshah’s sexual practice but also to “all nonnormative sex, desires, excess, and general publish conduct” as well as “all socially unpleasant behaviour” (Massad 283). By the time Mahfouz publishes Al-Sukkariyyah (1957, Sugar Street) a decade later, he presents male homosexuality as an illness which reflects, according to Massad, the possible entrenchment of “the medical model of homosexuality […] in the colonial North Atlantic world” before the ←52 | 53→“purveyors of Western gayness” colonized Arab homosexualities and “sodomy” became an apt metaphor for Westoxification (Massad 287, 369, 385). Massad prefers to talk about Levantine “same-sex contact” and aims to “re-orient” desire against the grain of western liberation struggles which championed identity politics in the face of oppression. Howard Chiang, for his part, refers to male same-sex relations in China as “contact-moments” (Chiang 3–19).

Likewise, a phrase like “a male lesbian,” relexified from ‘yan kifi in Hausa (a language in the Islamized northern parts of western African countries) to refer to a passive homosexual male (the already mentioned ‘yan daudu), who has an affair with another passive partner, reveals a certain level of translational uneasiness and possibly the incommensurability of African same-sex relations. In Kampala, Uganda, where Sections 140 and 141 of the Penal Code condemn same-sex relations, some Ugandan women identify themselves as “tommy-boys,” that is, biological women who see themselves as men, often pass as men, and need to be the dominant partner during sex, rather than “lesbians.” In South Africa, the word “gay” is also susceptible to a category crisis, as a South African “masculine man” playing the dominant role in a relationship with another man, for instance, is called “a straight man” and is not perceived as “gay” because he acts as penetrator and retains a form of heterosexual identity. Amachicken involves foreplay only whereas the English word “lesbian” was, at least in the mid-1990s, equated with genital sex. The word “lesbian” clashes with indigenous (e.g. Zulu) designations and their corollary practices. For instance, same-sex sex between female “gang bosses” and women inmates in women’s jail is called snaganaga but does not qualify as “lesbian” sex (Nkabinde 134).

In her autobiography, Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma (2008), Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde explains that she is a sangoma or traditional healer within the larger system of Zulu gender-differentiated spiritual possession cults involving “male women,” that is, women “possessed” by a male ancestor. “Lesbian” is a word that she looked up in an English dictionary at the age of thirteen and that does not quite render the relationship she, as a male woman, has with her “ancestral wife.” Both biowomen, Nkabinde as a “male woman” and her “ancestral wife,” are not united in a common identity based on a shared sexual orientation, as in the sexual orientation clause in the 1996 South African Constitution (9/3), but rather are distinguished from each other according to gender difference, complicated by spirituality (Zabus ←53 | 54→“Writing”). Zulu “ancestral wives” can only function in their relation to “male women,” the way “dees” (from the last syllable of the English word “lady”) function solely in their relation to “toms” (from “tomboys”) in Thailand (Sinnott). Even though Nkabinde, unlike the Thai tom, translates her gender identity into “tomboy,” “lesbian” and “butch” in the space of her autobiography and, later, as “transgender,” the Zulu label tagged onto her ancestral wife, like the Thai term dee, falls off the grid of a global, translational vocabulary so that postcolonial local naming practices clash with western-influenced parlance.

Translated into Algonquin, Nkabinde would be a Two-Spirit (niizh manitoog) in Canada, following the reclaiming of First Peoples’ pre-colonial taxonomies in the 1990s; in western transgender parlance, she could be labelled pre-FTM (female-to-male) and, finally, beyond her narrative, a trans man. A decade after his autobiography, he underwent a mastectomy, chose a new name – Zaen (also spelled Zean) Nkabinde. He was on a waiting list for bottom surgery or phalloplasty in Soweto when I visited him in May 2016,11 but died two years later of unknown causes.

Parker and Aggleton have cautioned that although African communities are aware of same-sex relationships, “they do not understand the concept of homosexuality” (22). In that regard, South African sangoma Mkasi Lindiwe’s own rendition of western gender identities in terms of Zulu possession cults is fascinating:

i Lesbian – A female sangoma who is possessed by a female spirit;

ii Bisexual – A female sangoma who is possessed by a female and a male spirit;

iii Transgender – A female sangoma who is possessed by a male (authoritative) spirit, or vice-versa;

iv Hermaphrodite – A sangoma with both sexual organs.

Confusion reigns when the participants themselves claim “to be lesbian one day, the next day […] bisexual; the following day […] transgender” (Lindiwe 56), thereby confirming that sexual orientation can occur on a continuum and is fluid for some people, sometimes even over one day. In legal terms, such fluidity may not go down well. Tiwonge Chimbalanga ←54 | 55→Kachepa and Steven Monjeza Soko were arrested in Malawi on charges including “gross indecency” and were sentenced to 14 years’ hard labor, until they received presidential pardon in the wake of then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to the country in 2009. While the courts defined the couple as “gay,” Tiwonge, one half of the couple, identified herself as “a woman.” Does that mean that Tiwonge is transgender?

V. Transidentity Cards

Some three decades ago, transgender became an umbrella term which, though not limited to transsexuality, covered heterosexual transvestitism, gay drag (drag-queen, drag-king), butch-femme lesbianism, and such non-European identities as the Native American berdache (now renamed Two-Spirit) or the Indian hijras. Transgender studies then entered an arduous dialogue with the ever-increasing spectrum now known as LGBPTQI2A+, to which “2” or Two-Spirit, “A” for “Asexual,” and + for “Others” have lately been added. No unequivocal answer to the question of identification – “Am I gay?” “Am I Mtf?” “Am I butch?” “Am I Ftm?” “Is s / he TS?” “Is s / he homosexual?” “Am I intersex?” – has so har been provided possibly on account of lexical amalgamations and of the many grey zones of undecidability on the African continent but also in countries such as Iran (Najmabadi). Among these new sexual citizenships, those allowed to travel and cross the borders of the nation-state contribute to further transpassing and, possibly, to trans-spatiality.

Nigerian-born, US-based Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames (2008) hints as a trans-spatial location. Black, “a biracial kid” (Abani 106) born in Pasadena from an Igbo father and Salvadoran mother, calls himself a “shape-shifter”; he takes on “several identities, […] different ethnic and national affiliations as though they were seasonal changes in wardrobe and discarding them just as easily. For a while, Black had been Navajo, the seed race: children of the sky people, descendants of visitors from a distant planet. That was when he built the spaceship” (37). It is in his spaceship which he built on top of his Los Angeles apartment building that he takes refuge after a painful incident, involving Sweet Girl, a trans prostitute, whom he befriended during her titillating lap dances in a bar.

In the privacy of his place, however, Black becomes uncomfortable. After touching her scrotal sack, he tries to reassure himself: “Technically Sweet Girl was a woman, so this didn’t count as a gay experience” (Abani ←55 | 56→282). As Sweet Girl appears more mannish to Black, who is now dressed up as a woman in a borrowed wedding dress and blond wig, he fights with her and she throws turpentine at him. As his dress catches on fire and he steps out onto the roof of his spaceship, the searchlight of a helicopter catches him, revealing to the crowd of devout Christians below the “Virgin of Flames.” Death is the inexorable outcome for Black, as if to signal through the flames that identitarian shape-shifting is still part of a current dystopia.

In Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956), the 1947 Partition is seen from the point of view of the inhabitants of a small village, Mano Majra, perched on the newly created border between India and Pakistan. Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs used to live in harmony until their faiths were used as lethal identifiers. However, one group escapes easy categorization. When quizzed by the Deputy Commissioner as to whether “there are other Muslims in Chundunnugger,” Muslim singer Haseena Begum falters. “You can call them Muslim, Hindu or Sikh or anything, male or female. A party of hijras [hermaphrodites] are still there” (Singh 103). Hijras, sketchily defined as ancestral “eunuchs” harking back to the Mughal empire (1526–1858) and whose current, varied identities run the whole westernized gamut between intersex and transgender, have always inhabited borders.

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in April 2014 to recognize hijras and transgender individuals as a “third gender.” Pakistan issued its first gender-neutral passport to a transgender activist Farzana Jaan in 2017. Earlier, in 2013, Nepal’s government started issuing citizenship certificates with the category “third gender” for people who do not wish to be identified as male or female.” In 2013, Australian passports started displaying three categories of sex: M for male, F for female, and X for indeterminate, unspecified or intersex. Similarly, a New Zealand passport may now be issued in an applicant’s preferred sex / gender, without the need to amend these details on his / her birth or citizenship record. In 2014 in Kenya, MTF (male-to-female) Audrey Mbugua won a court case to have the “M” on her identity card changed to “F.” Despite advances in Euro-American legislation, the most progressive reforms regarding gender variance emanate from non-Euro-American societies where new legislation is construed as a postcolonial response to laws and thought systems inherited from colonialism that imposed sexual dimorphism.

For some nation / states, the M / F binary is already a thing of the past; chances are that it will eventually disappear from I.D. cards, like ←56 | 57→the race or ethnicity or the language or the religion of an individual,12 and be ousted by “preferred identities” and the “right to be forgotten.”13 The I.D. card itself may be replaced by a chip and the QR (“Quick response”) code, with its unlimited scan life, will presumably continue to be machine-readable. Both non-human animals and non-animal humans may be ID’d by a mega-state, in which authority will have shifted “from individual humans to networked algorithms” (Harari 402). Arguably, I’s will be shrunk down to a binary system, inherent in all two-dimensional matrix barcodes, and the notion of “post-identity,” which already exists to refer to European integration (McMahon 2013), may thrive within the EU orbit. As Shoshana Zuboff has decreed in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), “[l]et there be a digital future, but let it be a human future first” (522), when the straitjacketing identity politics of yore will bend to post-human experientiality and diversity. In that regard, the postcolony’s cultural production, especially its literatures, acted as a discourse of anticipation.

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1 LGBT+ is here a shortcut for the ever-expanding LGBPTQI2A+ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Pansexual-Transgender-Queer-Intersex-Two-Spirit-Others).

2 Accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

3 I here borrow the term from Rey Chow.

4 See my discussion in Zabus, The African Palimpsest, xvii-xviii.

5 In Brazil, the claim not to have “races” dates back to the 1930s; a law, passed in 2018, removed the word “race” from France’s 1958 constitution. Both countries have, however, have been faulted for “disappearing” some categories.

6 See Hill for a deeper analysis in relation to the US and NATO forces’ initiatives such as Human Terrain Systems (HTS) and COIN (Contemporary Counterinsurgency).

7 See Zabus, Between Rites and Rights, 221-34.

8 “Tous les matins je vérifie mon identité. […] Française ? Algériene ? Fille ? Garçon ? “

9 “Je suis dans le temps de mon homosexualité.”

10 “Ni les garçons ni les filles n’étaient ma tasse de thé.”

11 I interviewed Zaen Nkabinde on 27 May 2016 at 9148/61 Extension 12, Protea Glen, Soweto, Johannesburg.

12 “Din” (religion), for instance, continues to be featured on Turkish passports.

13 According to Article 17 of the General Data Protection Regulation of 2016 (, it is now possible to permanently delete a Facebook page and to have personal data removed from Internet searches, just as it should be a trans person’s right to have their “deadname” (the name given at birth in accordance with their birth sex) forgotten, if they so wish.