Born in 1964, Chaza Charafeddine studied curative education in Switzerland and eurythmie dance in Germany, before shifting her interest to visual arts and photography in 2007.
In 2012, she published her first novel Flashback, (Dar Asaqi, Beirut). She lives and works in Beirut since 2006.
When Boulos asked me whether I knew one of those artists who specialize in drawing portraits of Islamic resistance martyrs so he could have his portrait made, I had no idea that his arbitrary question was about to lead me into the worlds of Islamic art and the labyrinths of sexual identities, with their tendencies and ramifications. That day Boulos told me of a book containing popular artistic images from Islamic countries, and declared that he wished to be depicted along the same popular aesthetics found in this particular book.
What first attracted my attention as I was leafing through the book was the image of the buraq. Popular artists from Pakistan, India, Egypt and Syria had depicted the human half of the buraq as a made up female, decorated with jewels and long hairdos. The buraq itself had anklets dangling from its four extremities. The image of a white buraq, specifically the one drawn in India in mid-previous century, reminded me of Lebanese pop star Najwa Karam. I had once seen a gigantic billboard on which the famous singer was referred to as “The Pearl of the Gulf”, and where, in her white dress, she appeared in a pose reminiscent of a horse’s stance.
Her picture was taken from behind, with Karam turning back towards the photographer, her gaze neutral and expressionless, making her seem akin to a drifting, atypical fictional being. But what particularly reminds one of a horse in her picture was the turn of her buttocks, which were projected upwards so that they seemed as the focus of the picture. Looking at pictures of these stars, it’s easy to imagine them as creatures living on substances unavailable on our planet, since their appearances keep changing, making it difficult for those following their news to actually identify a particular one among them. And this, again, is what confers on them a “divine” quality, making them seem like mythological beings such as the god Krishna, whose manifestations are limitless.
After that I began searching for pictures of other pop stars photographed as horses, and so I visited the websites of many other female Lebanese singers. Not a single one escaped this scrutiny: Even Nancy Ajram, usually considered ‘innocent’, had assumed the “horse” pose in an old publicity poster I found in a CD store. It was clear that this particular turn of the buttocks that these artists wanted in their portraits was intended to remind of the backside of horses. I wondered: why did the Arabs choose to make the horse into the animal that flew and transported the prophet from Mekka to the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem?
Why not pick the eagle for example, which among God’s creatures would be by nature the most appropriate candidate to fulfill this role? I researched the status of the horse for the Arabs and found that they privileged it immeasurably more than other beautiful animals. Poets’ poems on the mare, which I was surprised to find so numerous, is the most important proof of this. They described the mare with the same expressions they used to praise and woo women. Even the ‘scientific” description of the pure Arab mare employed almost the same expressions used to describe the desired female body.
For example according to one source, “The two buttocks bones should be far apart and prominent, and the chest should be high, wide, its muscles visible, hard, neither deep-set nor caved-in, and two muscles resembling breasts should be jutting out. Its eyes should be large, rectangular, clear and shiny, fixed and staring hard, with delicate eyelids and seeing far…”
A return to origins
I was able to access the lower floor of the AUB library dedicated to rare books and there I perused art books on Persian miniatures dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It seemed to me that there was an important difference between the drawings of popular artists in the 1940s that I had seen in my friend Boulos’ book, and the Persian artists. The difference was not limited to aesthetics; it also included the actual portrayal of the buraq. For while the popular artists portrayed its human half as female, the 16th century artists portrayed it as a human being of indefinite gender.
In the course of my research on Islamic art Ayman, another friend who proved a source of inspiration, introduced me to a book on Mughal Islamic art that was to play the most important role in this project, as I ended up using many miniatures present in the book as a backdrop for the photographic portraits of the individuals who formed the core of this project. According to the researcher and writer Amina Okada Mughal artists were influenced by European art, which they came in contact with when Jesuit missionaries came to India.
Subjects inspired from European art are encountered in many a Mughal piece, that nevertheless disregard the religious content of the European representations. The themes of Mughal painting were varied; It knew its golden age in the 16th and 17th centuries when it mainly portrayed Imperial life, Imperial portraits, hunting trips and historical meetings, besides weddings and wars.
The female man
As I leafed through the books on Islamic art dating back to that period, It seemed to me that the Persian artists who were in fact the teachers of the Mughal artists adopted a drawing/painting style that feminized male features, which was fashionable at the time. Thus not only was the image of the buraq confused, but also that of male personages such as Jahangir and Shah Jahan and other Indian Mughal Emperors: something soft appeared there, reminding of the ghulam. According to Afsaneh Najmabadi in her book Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards (California 2005), beauty was not an exclusively female privilege: men shared in it equally with women, not to say surpassed them, particularly the ones dubbed “the beardless” or ghulams, that is the youth whose beard hadn’t yet grown.
Najmabadi writes that men were portrayed with feminine features resembling to a great extent those of women, the only thing setting them apart being, for example, their headdress. Moreover, “the perception of male beauty and eroticism were considered elevated feelings”. According to Khaled Ruwaiheb in his book Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (University of Chicago Press, 2009) attraction to a youth whose beard hasn’t yet appeared was completely acceptable, which allows us to conclude that Arabs considered “the beardless” as a kind of “other sex”. For this reason, they did not consider it “shameful” to entertain an erotic rapport with such a youth.
And the decrees of judges at that time varied in their severity. For example, kissing, touching and “rubbing thighs” were not considered homosexual acts. What was decreed as “homosexual” and hence unacceptable was straightforward intercourse between two men.
Following is a text quoted by Ruwaiheb from the Aleppine scholar Ali Al-Dabbagh al-Miqati (1760):
“[The beardless]: In being free of a beard he is akin to the people of paradise [a reference to well-known tradition according to which the people of paradise will be beardless]… the Creator is pleased with him and so did not bring forth what would disfigure his cheeks, thus the mirror of his face is clear, as the cloudless sky….’’.
Ruwaiheb also mentions that being infatuated with the beauty of a ghulam and desiring him were considered two different things. He quotes the following example by the jurisprudent and religious scholar (faqih) Abi Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111):
“do not think that the love of beautiful forms is only conceivable with the eye toward satisfying carnal desire, for satisfying carnal desire is a distinct pleasure that may be associated with the love of beautiful form, but the perception of beauty in itself is also pleasurable and may be loved for its own sake.”
The Third Book
My research on the buraq was completed with the book Mi‘raj Nameh that my friend Alia offered me. The book illustrates the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to the Heavens on the back of this mythological being, in the trip known as the isra’ wal mi‘raj (The Night Journey and Ascension). I entitled my project “Divine Comedy” because I perceived a similarity between the images present in this book and Dante’s famous epic, which he wrote between 1308 and 1321, the year of his death. Some academics deem it probable that Dante was in turn influenced by the tale of the Night Journey and Ascension and by the Arab poet and philosopher Abi al -‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri’s (973-1057) book The Epistle of Forgiveness, a literary text that describes the state of souls in heaven and hell.
My work is based on the 1940s Iranian, Indian, Afghani and Egyptian popular portrayals of mythological beings such as the buraq, or highly symbolic beings part of cultural heritage, such as the peacock. As for the miniatures featured, they are mainly selected from Mughal Islamic art and from Persian and Turkish miniatures from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As far as the Turkish miniatures are concerned, I was exclusively interested in the “Mi‘raj Nameh” manuscript produced by the Herat school in Khurasan. Also, I altered the original drawings according to the content of the “scene” or to what works well visually and content-wise with the character being photographed.
My first intention was to work on a comparison between the aesthetics of popular imagination’s portrayal of the buraq in the early previous century, and the aesthetics of images of pop artists that marketing strategies seek to portray as “pure beauty”, transforming them into new mythological beings (the new buraq).
But after a number of trials, I decided to return to the beginning and to use the same aesthetic used by 16th and 17th century artists, that is by photographing persons representing a composite aesthetic, incarnating both the male and female sexes, which makes of them “divine” or mythological beings.
Some of those I worked with described themselves as “men who liked to play women” from time to time, transvestites, cross-dressers, transsexuals, transgender or simply men who do not fear manifesting the woman inside them. What caught my attention the most was that deeply meaningful look in their eyes, in it the seductiveness of woman, maleness without masculinity and a kind of childhood clarity.
It is both astonishing and disturbing. I am not entirely sure what it moved in me but it definitely made it clear why I had always found the faces of men and women commonly considered beautiful inexpressibly boring. And I understood this infatuation with the ghulam, this boy/girl, and wondered: Is it because the two sexes are meeting in one person, completing the human image? Or is it that the lack of sexual maturity in the “beardless” suggests purity, synonymous with vitality and youth (a clear face, pure skin, harmonious form, etc...)? And is it for this reason that this purity arouses a “soft desire”, and hence the desire for the ghulam is perceived as acceptable? I chose to work with male transvestites, transgender or transsexuals (male to female) only, since the aesthetic of the portraits I am working on requires the female form.
Photography, inkjet print on fine art paper.
Thanks to Boulos Khodr, Ayman Baalbaki, Alya Karame, Alexandre paulikewitch, Krikor Jabotian, Randa Lamri, George Zouain, Modi, Tina la Diva, and Mia.
Chaza Charafeddine, November 2010