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Session R4790 (Competing Discourses of Masculinity in the Arab World), 2017
The concept of the su'luk (vagabond and outsider) from classical Arabic occupies an important place in Iraqi culture. In the pre-modern era, the sa'alik rebelled against the tribal system and survived by raiding tribal caravans, but hedonistic sexual pursuits of women and overt sexualization of the female body as found in much of classical Arabic poetry are absent from their poetry. In the modern era, one of the outstanding characteristics of the sa'alik is the homosocial world they inhabit, where drinking in cheap bars and cafes and living on the pavement or in cheap hotels was a means of bonding. Their life and their poetry is simultaneously an act of rebellion against both literary and social mores (that are still relevant to Iraqi and Arab masculinity today), but was not able to expand to include women. Yet, their masculinity they express is not a normative one, and this is what I hope to explore in this panel. Creative writing at the beginning of the modern era in Iraq often tended to excessively focus on “alternative women” such as the prostitute, singer and dancer, because of the lack of presence of “regular” women in public life as interlocutors or counterparts to male intellectuals. Male society had homoerotic leanings, but the open expression of love alarmed and confused the public. The poet Husayn Mardan (1927-1972) invented a place for himself outside systems of social control as a hero of the fog (faris al-dabab) surrounded by prostitutes and the dominance he exercised in literary debates in bars and cafes surpassed the limited stays he had in the world of forbidden pleasures. His choice of a woman’s body as the terrain of his poetic rebellion represented, on the one hand, an expression of his own libido, while on the other it breached the boundaries of the culturally acceptable with a force that gained him notoriety but also led to his prosecution. In the following generation, the band of disciples that a poet like Jan Dammu (1943-2003) gathered around him took personal care of him, including shaving and cutting his hair (and sometimes even masturbating him!), while he critiqued their writings, and posed as the figure of the drunken madman that countered the image of the heroic warrior-soldier promoted by the Saddam regime in the 1980s. These examples, along with other contemporaneous Iraqi sa'alik will be explored at more length in the panel.