Marwan Kaabour

Interview by
Evan Moffitt
Photography by
Daniel Riera

1001 words for gay sex

From his London home, Beiruti babe Marwan Kaabour is a collector of the most charmingly sleazy artifacts of queer culture around the Arab World. The graphic designer and I sit down for Thanksgiving dinner at Notting Hill’s best Palestinian joint. On the plate: Lebanese cock, clubbing in wartime and his sexy new slang bible, ‘The Queer Arab Glossary’, excerpted here for your hookup pleasure.

Evan: Cheers! How do you say “cheers” in Lebanon?
Marwan: Késak. Or késik, if you’re nasty…it’s the feminine form.
Késik! How long have you been living in London?
I’ve been living in the UK for 12 years.
One of the phrases from your book that I love, Shaklak min Beirut, means “You look like you’re from Beirut”, i.e. you look like a fag. Is Beirut really that gay?
That phrase was submitted to me by someone from Baalbek, which is a city located in the valley between the two mountain chains that define Lebanon. It’s a very conservative place. So he said that when he was growing up – he’s a drag queen now, mind you – people would tell him either, ‘You look like you’re from Beirut,’ or ‘You look Christian.’ Because that’s like, “Other”, “Western”, “femme”.
What was it like growing up there?
Beirut is a typical capital – super open and progressive compared to the rest of the country. I was born in 1987, which was three years before the Civil War ended. I don’t have a solid memory of the conflict. I became conscious of the city as it was being rebuilt. I was very lucky. My parents are incredible.
What do they do?
My father is a singer, my mother is a painter. They’re both involved in left-wing cultural production, which was aligned with the Palestinian cause when I was growing up. It was a very lively artistic environment, which is not how everyone grows up, particularly in Lebanon. It’s not usual to have artists for parents.
Anywhere, really…
I’m from a very faggy family! My mom’s side is like…someone needs to study them. In my teens, I started going out partying with my cousin and she had gay friends. For my eighteenth birthday in 2005 she took me to ACID, this legendary nightclub that closed in 2009. We had planned the party during the week of my birthday, but then our prime minister was assassinated by a car bomb and the whole country went to a standstill. There were many protests.
What about your party?
It had to be delayed! When it finally happened two or three months later – it was magic. I still say I’ve never been to a better gay club – gays and lesbians and old people and young people and straight people and drag queens…
Any memorable men?
I didn’t touch any boy. I was just doing my thing. But right after that, it was like…how do you call it? The Sesame Gate?
Open sesame?
Open sesame! I was like, ‘Oh, HERE we go…’
You opened.
Before that, from around the time I turned 16, I’d chat with guys online, but I was just gathering knowledge. There was mIRC, this old school chat room where you had profile pages, but no pictures. ManJam was really popular too. Which was funny, because in Arabic, manjam means “the mine”.
Like for gay spelunking?
Exactly. (laughs) In Lebanon everyone lives with their parents, so we’d have to sneak around. My car was my favorite place to have sex.

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In his teens, Marwan appeared in ads for Burger King, a bank and a Lebanese yogurt brand.

I get that, I’m from Los Angeles… When were you last in Beirut?
July of last summer.
How has the scene changed?
The country has been hammered. In retrospect, when I was coming out, that was really like a golden era. There were, like, multiple spaces, a few clubs, a lesbian bar, a bear bar. We had diversity, but it has since disappeared. Just like how in London a lot of gay bars are closing down.
There are a lot of new queer parties, but it’s true, many brick and mortars have disappeared.
ACID was on the outskirts of Beirut in a purpose-built space, in the middle of nowhere. The municipality just turned a blind eye. Then developers started building closer and closer, until there was a residential block right next door. ‘Oh, it’s too noisy. You have to shut down.’
Has the political climate also changed?
Out of the blue, just in the last few years, these right-wing Christian militias have started going after queers and queer spaces. On the other side, you have fundamentalist Muslims also preaching things that are kind of similar. It’s just that the gay/queer spaces usually exist in the Christian areas, which were always perceived as more progressive.
Why do you think this is such a recent development?
Just take a look at world politics and you’ll understand how the conversations in Trump’s America trickle down. These militias are using the same talking points about trans people. ‘They’re trying to change society. They’re trying to turn all the men into women.’ All this conspiracy shit. So now the community is maybe the most scared it’s been in a long time. Which isn’t to say the scene is not alive. The Lebanese love to fuck, trust me. They’re such horny bastards. Also, it’s such a small pool, at some point you’ve slept with everyone. I was like, ‘Oh god. I can’t go to the bars anymore…’
You HAD to move to London.

I’d chat with guys online, but I was just gathering knowledge.

One of the great things about your ‘Queer Arab Glossary’ is that it gives a glimpse of the long, long queer history of the Arab world. It really counteracts those talking points. Some of the terms are even classical Arabic.
There are words that have survived generations! Basically, the ‘Glossary’ was a lockdown project, and it came from my Instagram account, Takweer.
Tell me more.
I’ve always been compulsive when it comes to collecting things, categorizing them, putting them in order. As a kid I’d collect family passport photos in a notebook. Later on I became obsessed with the Spice Girls. I collected everything I could find.
Which Spice are you?
Ginger! Of course. The faggot, the attention seeker. Can’t shut up. But Geri Halliwell always managed to do so much with so little. I have a lot of respect for her. I had folders of magazine clippings… I’d always do this. Fast-forward to having desktop folders and then a very short-lived Tumblr page called Attaboy. It was a mixture of stuff – Arabian queers, but also, like, Lana Del Rey. The folder on my desktop kept growing and growing.
What was the “Aha!” moment?
One day I saw a picture on Facebook of graffiti on a wall that said something like, “Queers are here” in Arabic. Someone replied, Takbir, which is the Muslim equivalent of “Amen”. And I thought, not Takbir, but Takweer. God isn’t great, God is queer.
So I started putting my ideas on Instagram and quickly realized that I was creating a kind of archive. In the beginning I really had no idea, but it came from a frustration that all the queer references that me and my young faggy friends in Beirut grew up with seemed to be dying out and were being replaced with a kind of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ history.
One of my favorite things on the Takweer Instagram page are these bad Arabic tattoos you’ve found in gay porn videos.
Basically, I’m having a glass of wine and watching porn and I notice that Diego Sans has a tattoo on his arm in Arabic that says, “Family comes first”. He’s always holding some guy’s head to throat fuck them and you just see “family”. Like, amazing. (both laugh)
How did Takweer lead you to make the ‘Glossary’?
I’ve always been fascinated with wordplay and typography. What we call the Arab world is actually 22 countries vaguely described as having Arabic as an official language, and we all have wildly different dialects. Sometimes in the comments section on Takweer someone will use a specific word I’ve never heard before and I’ll have to ask them what it means, and it’s because they’re from the Gulf or from Egypt.
And then it became a book?
Then, in January 2020, I left my design agency job of seven years. I thought I was about to conquer the world… I had just designed Rihanna’s book, I had been working with Art Basel. And suddenly the pandemic hit, and I had nothing. But I did have time. So I put out Instagram polls and collected answers for, like, ‘What words are used in your culture and your part of the Arabic-speaking region to refer to queerness?’ I was blown away by the wealth of responses.

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What are some of your favorites?
A clear favorite is shawwāya which, if I’m not mistaken, is from Tunisia. It means to be a “barbeque grill”, and it refers to a vers gay man. Like a piece of meat, you have to flip him over every now and then.
As in, ‘He says he’s shawwāya, but he really just wants to get spit-roasted.’
It’s true. There’s a Palestinian phrase, byākul min ṭīzo, which means “he eats from his ass”. He’s such a hungry bottom, he doesn’t eat from his mouth anymore. He just devours from his hole. It’s one of the illustrations in the book, this person whose face has become an ass and is devouring a sausage.
These sujuk are delicious, by the way…
There are running themes in the book. So one of them is worms. Like, he has a worm in his butt, which is not so nice, because either you’re riddled with disease because you’re gay or this worm in your butt is itchy and the only way to get rid of it is to be fucked. There’s also the theme of fluidity and being liquid. In Morocco they say qāyiso-l-mā , which means, “he’s been touched by water”. It’s so poetic. I just imagine this hand brushing him with water and he becomes gay. Like gay holy water. A creation of Adam moment.
We’re in the deep end now, babe. I also love the words for “mouth like a drain” – ballā’a – and “cock-swallower” – ballā’ eyr. I’d be flattered if anyone said them to me.
Of course! Like the drain you have in the shower, everything goes in…
…and nothing comes out.
Relating to the theme of transportation. Every region has their own version, like the taxi or the village bicycle. Everyone is invited to take you for a ride.
What’s the Beiruti word for faggot?
In Beirut we say topçi for faggot. It’s not a nice word – I was definitely called that when I was younger – but we also use that with each other. ‘Hey topçi.’ And it comes from Turkish, when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Lebanese love to fuck, trust me. They’re such horny bastards.

We’re talking the eighteenth and nineteenth century then! I read in the ‘Glossary’ that it means “cannon”. Doesn’t sound very limp-wristed to me.
(laughs) I’m sure it has something to do with the ball going into the cannon, something phallic…
I’ll never see Topkapı Palace in Istanbul the same way again.
No. And somehow, it remains in usage. I had to go back and speak with some Turkish people, many of whom didn’t recognize it, because it’s not contemporary. But it’s still the most popular word for gay in Beirut. You see that across the region – there are Italian words in Libya and Egypt.
There are also words like niquer, in French, which you note came from Levantine Arabic. So it’s not as if colonizers just extracted resources and left culture behind. They took language with them, too.
I always thought we were the ones who got niquer from the French. I would just input all the information from memory, or how it’s been submitted to me. And then I began working with the incredible Suneela Mubayi, who edited the ‘Glossary’. She’s a professor of Arabic literature with historical knowledge and the linguistic skills to craft the sentences. She’s like, ‘Marwan, you didn’t get it from the French, the French took it from you.’ And she pulls out all these ancient books, like ‘1001 Nights’, where they say niq. Which is a dirty word! I wouldn’t ever say that to my parents. But also weird to be so old-fashioned, like saying, ‘They’re committing buggery…’
Bring buggery back!
Definitely one of the more eye-opening things about the ‘Glossary’ is that it’s a window into geopolitics and colonial history, and not just in terms of queerness and language.
Can’t wait to read it.

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Originally published in BUTT 34