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Treat Me Like Your Mother
Images courtesy of Mohamad Abdouni and Em Abed, from Treat Me Like Your Mother (2021)Illustration Callum Abbott

The hidden history of Beirut’s resilient trans women elders

Mohamad Abdouni’s Treat Me Like Your Mother records the city’s rich queer history, and shares tales of ‘war, survival, love, parties, abuse, and jail’

Trans women are women. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘choose to challenge’, and today on Dazed, we’re challenging the TERFs. In 2020, the UK government scrapped urgent reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, and a global pandemic continues to cut many trans people off from vital healthcare, all while trans-exclusionary radical feminists spout anti-trans rhetoric. On IWD, we celebrate trans strength and resilience.

Cold Cuts is the brainchild of Lebanese-born photographer, filmmaker, and visual artist Mohamad Abdouni. Originally published in 2017, the magazine was loosely conceived by Abdouni as a “brand new photo journal”, but developed quite organically into a platform for the queer histories and narratives of the Arab and SWANA (South West Asia and Northern Africa) region. “It came out of a need for a queer publication in the region,” he tells Dazed now, “for a publication that explored queer stories, profiles, and people within the region.”

Abdouni’s upcoming book Treat Me Like Your Mother – a special edition of Cold Cuts – shares the hitherto untold stories of 11 trans women living in Beirut. Inviting each woman into the studio for a day of dedicated attention, pampering, and story-sharing, this beautiful book records the lives and experiences of these extraordinary individuals. “The fortnight that we worked on this project was, so far, the most exhilarating, saddening, happy, and emotional time we’ve ever gone through,” Abdouni recalls. “We just cried for two weeks.”

Aged from their late 30s to early 50s, these women are marginalised figures even within a culture that must exist in the shadows of a destructed city, in which their very desires are illegal. Yet Abdouni is clear that he doesn’t want to dwell on and propagate the narrative of victimhood – Treat Me Like Your Mother is a celebration.

“I try extremely hard not to focus on the trauma and the negatives,” he explains. “When it comes to any kind of documentation around queer culture in our region – especially when it comes from a Western, European, or American gaze – it always focuses on the drama and the persecution… and this, unfortunately, has really harmed our communities.”

Even the title itself, which is taken from one of the women’s stories of being violently assaulted, is an act of radical joy. “We wanted to lift this phrase from its traumatic context and turn it into a powerful reclamation of respect towards these women we interviewed,” states Abdouni.

What emerges from Treat Me Like Your Mother is a handful of incredibly moving and compelling tales of, as Abdouni says, “war, survival, love, balls, parties, families, beaches, abuse, and jail” that would have otherwise been lost. Excavating and recording these endangered histories is one of the driving principles of Abdouni’s work. “Queer Arab history is incredibly rich,” he tells Dazed. “But we just have zero access to it, and zero documentation of it; nothing at all.”

The book is scheduled to be published in September, but the project still needs support. You can donate to the ongoing work of Cold Cuts and pre-order your copy of Treat Me Like Your Mother here.

Below, Dazed talks to Mohamad Abdouni about the erasure of queer history, giving something back to their trans elders, and immortalising the rich and beautiful stories of the Arab and SWANA queer communities.

Can you tell us about the origins of Cold Cuts?

Mohamad Abdouni: It started off as a passion project. I’ve been in publishing for almost nine years now, and I wanted to come back and do periodic publishing, but I knew that I wanted to do it completely differently. At Cold Cuts, we have no editorial schedule, calendar, nor planning, and we have no headquarters – we’re a team of four people, and everyone is somewhere different in the world. Each issue forms itself organically as I go through my regular life, meet new people, and try to discover the histories of our own queer culture in the region. It forms itself gradually; for example, I left Beirut about a year and a half ago, and relocated to Istanbul for work. So, issue two – which is coming out after Treat Me Like Your Mother – is extremely heavy with stories, profiles, and histories from Turkish queer culture; that simply happened because I moved there, started meeting people and making new connections, and getting fascinated with the stories and the history.

I wanted to have absolutely no agenda, no purpose. I just wanted to let it develop its own personality somehow. While working on the first issue, we realised right before going to print that we had created a queer publication, which we (deduced) came out of a need for one in the region – for a publication that explored queer stories, profiles, and people within the region. After that, things became much more conscious. We still work without an editorial calendar and plan, but we know that, at least for now, Cold Cuts is focusing on queer histories from the SWANA region. 

Treat Me Like Your Mother is a special edition of Cold Cuts. It’s the first stepping stone to continue that research into our queer histories, and to document the stories of our trans elders. 

Treat Me Like Your Mother is about hunting down stories before they’re gone, because these women are the only thing we have left of the trans history within our community” – Mohamad Abdouni

Can you share something about the cultural and social climate from which Cold Cuts and Treat Me Like Your Mother have emerged, and explain the persecution that gay and gender non-conforming people face?

Mohamad Abdouni: This is something that’s very important when it comes to Cold Cuts, but also to my work in general – I try extremely hard not to focus on the trauma and the negatives. That’s because, unfortunately, when it comes to any kind of documentation around queer culture in our region – especially when it comes from a Western, European, or American gaze – it always focuses on the drama and the persecution, because that’s what sells. This has really harmed the communities in our region, because, all of a sudden, there was a narrative being created that was not entirely true; a narrative that was imposed on us.

It doesn’t mean that trauma and persecution do not exist – we still live in an Arab country. We still live in a very, very patriarchal, Arab region. However, what we try to focus on is all the other aspects that are never really shown in the media. For example, one of our special edition issues is about queer family and family dynamics; relationships between mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, and mothers and queer and non-binary people who have these beautiful relationships. Not that it’s the norm, but it’s very important to shed light on that, to show the reality and the spectrum of where we are and how we live our lives. So, yes, persecution and trauma exist, but it’s not all there is, and I think it’s important to shed light on that.

Because it contributes to an idea of victimhood? 

Mohamad Abdouni: If we were to give some context, it’s completely illegal to be gay in Lebanon. So we’re not even talking about the legality of marriage, for example, that’s not even something we even get to. It’s just: you’re gay, you go to jail. It’s that simple when it comes to the law. However, things are very different – not only between different countries in the region, but between each city and each town. So, when we talk about Lebanon, it changes as soon as you leave Beirut. Things change even within Beirut, because it’s very segregated in terms of religions. But we’re bundled up into this one bag of the ‘Middle East’, which is completely (misleading) because, again, within every country, everything is different from town to town versus city to city. It’s very important to point out the fact that it is different everywhere. It’s not one entity that has one community – it’s hundreds of different queer communities with different ways of doing things, different histories, different cultures, different everything. That’s what Cold Cuts tries to explore – these differences and similarities between the communities in our region.

In the short film about Treat Me Like Your Mother, you say that it’s about “recording history while it’s in the making”, which is a beautiful idea. Could you elaborate on that and explain what it means to you?

Mohamad Abdouni: All of the work I do (that isn’t commissioned by fashion brands, of course) comes out of frustration – a personal frustration of not being able to have any access to my own history as a queer Lebanese Arab. I think that’s what fuels most of the work I do, especially when it comes to Cold Cuts. It’s basically this need to record things for future generations, because we don’t have things recorded for us. For me, what’s even more important than recording history still in the making is telling stories before they’re forgotten. Treat Me Like Your Mother is about hunting down stories before they’re gone, because these women are the only thing we have left of the trans history within our community. Once these women are gone, their stories are gone, their archives will be gone, they themselves will be gone – they won’t be able to tell us their stories or share their archives to give us more context of how things were, of how their lives were. Nowadays it’s easier to record history as it’s still in the making because we have social media, and everyone records their own story. Everyone’s own personal Instagram account has their own story. But it becomes more and more difficult to hunt down what happened before.

The fortnight that we worked on this project was, so far, the most exhilarating, saddening, happy, and emotional time we’ve ever gone through. We were a team of around seven or eight people and, literally, we just cried for two weeks. We had each of the women come in to spend the entirety of one day with us, during which she would share her stories and her archive. We had a room full of beautiful outfits that were donated by different people from the country; we had a huge make-up station with everything humanly possible, and wigs – an endless sea of wigs. And we told them, ‘We’re yours for the day. Use us to do whatever you want, to look however you want, and we want to take beautiful, gorgeous portraits of you’. 

As a community, we have been very ungrateful to our trans elders for all the progress, and the few rights and advantages that we have now, which are all thanks to them. This was a way to show them some kind of respect, and show them love and appreciation for what they’ve done. It’s not nearly enough appreciation, of course, but… it was a very intense two weeks, and it was beautiful. Queer Arab history is incredibly rich, but we just have zero access to it, and zero documentation of it; nothing at all. We’re in 2021 – it’s appalling that this book is the first documentation of our trans stories in Lebanon. I think it’s the most saddening thing in the world. The book is, by far, not an all-encompassing history of our trans culture at all, but it is a first step. 

“For me, what’s even more important than recording history still in the making is telling stories before they’re forgotten” – Mohamad Abdouni

I love the title – where did it come from? 

Mohamad Abdouni: It’s taken out of a story that one of the women shared with us – one that struck a chord with all of us. As two young boys were beating her up – sometime in the early 2000s, in some bushes around the Rawche area in Beirut – she was calling out, ‘Please don’t kill me, just imagine I am your mother! Treat me the way you would your mother!’ We wanted to lift this phrase from its traumatic context and turn it into a powerful reclamation of respect towards the women we interviewed.

How did you find the women who were involved in the project? 

Mohamad Abdouni: The whole thing started when one of my best friends – who happens to be the drag mama of Beirut – called me late at night. She was at a queer open mic night at a cultural centre, and she called me sobbing, telling me that this older trans woman came up on stage and started sharing stories from her life. My friend was asking me, ‘How the fuck do we not know about all this? How do these stories exist and we just never hear about them? We’re both an active part of this community and we have no idea’. That night, we were like, ‘Alright, that’s it. Drop everything, we need to record these histories’.

Do you consider it an ongoing project? 

Mohamad Abdouni: I didn’t just want to keep these women’s archives in my living room, so I got in touch with the Arab Image Foundation, who were thrilled to have them as the first collection of queer histories in the Arab world. Now, we’re creating a Cold Cuts project within the foundation, which is going to be an ongoing collection of queer histories from the region that will be populated as myself and others do more work. So, of course, it’s always an ongoing project – and not just this one, but the bigger idea of trying to hunt down our queer histories.

This special edition was created with support from LGBTQI+ NGO Helem, the Arab Image Foundation, and culture space Station. Treat Me Like Your Mother is scheduled for release in September, but the project still needs support. You can donate to the ongoing work of Cold Cuts and pre-order your copy here.