Creating a new sphere of SWANA queer culture

London-based graphic designer and founder of Takweer Marwan Kaabour talks to us about queer pop-culture icons in Arab history and how SWANA culture influences his work.

What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?

I was born in Beirut towards the end of the Lebanese Civil War. I was too young to remember much from the war itself, but as I was growing up in the city, I recall seeing signs of years of violence and conflict. Despite the harsh surroundings, I would say that I had a lovely childhood - filled with art and love. I was blessed with having two artists for my parents; my father is a musician, and my mother is a painter. They were also loving and had progressive politics, which helped shape my personality and allowed me to express myself freely. We didn't have much money, but my parents always tried to provide us with the necessary things in life. I was an incredibly lively child, constantly putting on a show, whether singing or belly dancing, or just being a total clown. I was also very close to my extended family, so my childhood included spending lots of time with my cousins andsecond cousins, with me as the cheeky youngest.

What are some of the key experiences as a child that still influence your work and life today?

My parents used to take me to watch a lot of children’s theatre, particularly puppet theatre. Both my parents used to work in children’s theatre, so there was a lot of theatricality around the house. That taught me a lot about storytelling and how different components (color, texture, text, sound, layout, movement, etc.) can come together to communicate, engage, and entertain. Even though the design is a very different field, the same considerations are made. For example - If I am working on the design of a book, I need to find the most suitable size, color, paper type, typeface, and graphic components. Then I start putting those elements together to try and evoke a certain feeling, whether that is contrast, drama, humour, etc. Designing is like composing a song or writing a play.

What were some of the Queer Icons in Arab Pop Culture and History that you grew up admiring?

As someone whose childhood was in the early 90s, there was no escaping the magical spell of Sherihan. Sherihan was an all-singing, all-dancing Egyptian star - who famously fronted Fawazeer Ramadan.

The most exciting part of Ramadan was watching Sherihan on the TV screen being the epitome of camp; it filled me with joy.

She wasn’t queer herself, but the way she expressed herself, her boundless feminine energy, and of course her incredible looks made her the archetype of a queer icon. She also faced a lot of personal suffering and pain, which only made her even more relatable. Later on, when I was about 8 or 9, I became obsessed with Lebanese singer Nawal el Zoghbi, whose poster I put up in my bedroom. Then in the early 00s, I was transfixed with the brilliant Haifa Wehbe, Elissa, and Nancy Ajram, who dominated the music scene at the time. They introduced sexuality and sensuality into their music, which I found mesmerising as a teen.

As a graphic designer, you have worked for some of the biggest names, including Rihanna, Barnbrook, and Safar - as a queer Muslim how has it been for you to navigate the design industry?

The most important thing about working in the creative industry is finding the right people whose energies and principles align with yours. Graphic Design is an incredibly broad field, and there are many aspects that I don’t necessarily find inspiring. It took me a while to find the right niche that worked for me; once I got there, it felt like a dream. That’s the reason why I stayed at Barnbrook for seven years. Not only did we share a similar political and ethical perspective on life, but I had the space to have creative authorship over my work, express myself freely, and have trust placed in me. My colleagues were always curious to learn more about someone whose experience varies from theirs, which only helped enrich the workplace. Since leaving the studio in 2020, and setting up my practice, I work with that ethos in mind: my somehow “different” background can only be a benefit to any working relationship rather than an obstacle.

What are some elements of Islamic Culture that have shaped your design aesthetics?

An appreciative of Arabic script and the way text itself can become the vehicle of artistic expression. It has informed my love for typography. Arabic script was one of the main tools of ornamentation in Muslim art and architecture, so over hundreds of years, we can see endless experimentation and abstractions of the way the text visually manifests. Whether I am using Arabic or English credit for a project, I still approach it in the same way: what feeling do I want the text of this project to embody? How can the text itself have a voice? What forms or shapes best serve this project? All the questions come from observing and studying the way the text was used in Islamic culture.

What inspired you to start Takweer? What are some of the interesting stories you have discovered while documenting queer Narratives in Arab history?

Takweer was born out of a personal frustration of not having access to the stories and histories of queer people who share my background. That wasn’t because those stories did not exist, but rather because no one has made the right effort to document them. I wanted to create an accessible space that others can connect to, and perhaps create a sense of belonging. Due to my design background, I felt like I had the right communication and storytelling skills, as well as visual sensibility, to create something that would have an impact. I am most happy when I’m doing research for Takweer, especially in the way that it allows me to explore countless queer stories and personalities from the recent and distant past.

One of the most fascinating stories was that of Al-Amin, the sixth Abbasid caliph who was known to engage in all sorts of non-normative sexual practices. He surrounded himself with a male “harem”, and even fell in love with one of his “Ghulam” called Kawthar. His mother tried to change his mind by surrounding him with women with short hair and dressed in masculine attire, which I find hilarious.

What kind of stories about queer Muslims would you like to see in Mainstream media?

I would like to see stories that centre the queer experience outside of Eurocentric standards and narratives. Throughout history, various cultures around the globe approached queerness, or non-normative expression of gender and sexuality, in a variety of ways, Muslim cultures included. I sometimes feel that we fall into the trap of taking what the Western discourse around queerness is and trying to fit it into our own context. It doesn’t always work!

So I would like to see stories of queerness that fall outside of the norm, and even outside of the labels that we’re used to.

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