SLOW#05: Queer Courage - A conversation with Ash Wadi

Tunde Adefioye, city dramaturge at KVS, spoke to Ash Wadi in Beirut. They* are one of the artists who will take care of the animation and 3D-mapping during SLOW#05: Queer Courage. He asked Ash about their work and how they feel as a person.

 Ash Wadi: 'Who am I? I’m a Lebanese person, I’m Arab. I studied graphic design as a major. Initially I was torn because I wanted to go into film making. But I had previously taken a few courses and thought I could self-teach myself. So now I do a little bit of both, combining graphic design, animation, you know, my general knowledge of sound design and the music that I play as a hobby from time to time. My main goal, when I like to work and create things, is to have a visual experience for both myself and the audience. What really helped with that throughout the years, was finding myself and my own identity because that has slowly been translated into my work.

And so, I use my work as a platform to kind of tell my experience, and have people interact with what it means to be an Arab and what it means to be transmasculine, which is how I identify. Transmasculine non-binary and it always causes a lot of confusion or raise a lot of question for both myself, my family, my entourage and then for people who are not local. So, I really like this parallel that I have been able to create between my envies, what I want to do in life and my profession. And at the same time how I identify and live on a day to day basis. How I interact with props and objects on the streets. How I wear my clothes or talk to people. I think all of these make up a person.”

Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say you see your work as a platform?

“In terms of the platform and how people – from different backgrounds – interact with my work: it is obviously a challenge. I’m not going to say I have the answer to it. I’ve only started experimenting with that. I just had my first release of a short film where I properly experimented with a bunch of tools that I acquired throughout the years, like graphic design and animation. And I vomited all of it out on to the screen. It was purely vomiting, like spitting it out on the screen for ten minutes. And I had no clue how all these people from different backgrounds would interact with it. It was thankfully screened in different areas around Beirut, including a city outside of Beirut, Byblos, and then even once in Italy, so people from different backgrounds got to see it. I was also surprised at the different feedback. A lot of the times if my audience had a bit of knowledge in terms of trans identities and what it means to be queer and locals and people who spoke Arabic, it was easier for them to accept or understand what I was talking about without necessarily being critical about my work.

Later on I noticed that when someone wasn’t familiar with these topics, even if they were Arab and they understood my form and its language, the questions were more – I’m not going to say shallow – but it was more confused. And I accepted that, there was a lot of confusion from people from my surrounding. My area had the same nationality but still felt some distance concerning my work.

I recognize my privilege in terms of: I got a degree from a private university, funded by the USA. And that gave me access to a lot of theory based knowledge, a lot of readings, the ability to abstract ideas. Creating concepts and conceptual thinking and turning them into a ten minute film that is bringing in all these different images that come from different sources. And for a lot of people I understand that is not the case when they look at media and when they watch movies and animations. Usually it sticks to something that we’re more familiar with on a general basis. So I had to keep that in mind every time I screened the film or whatever it is I do, even when I’m playing random sounds with my music instruments.

Instead of playing a more melodic tone. People will be confused because it is not necessarily what is accepted, it will always come off as provocative. Because they don’t know why I’m experimenting that much, and why I have the possibility to create something so conceptual. What it means to be conceptual.

So that was a challenge for me:  how I had to explain my film as an essay film. Something that was theory based instead of something that has a narrative, that goes from a to z. And I’m still working on it. I still try to find a way to explain it, so I don’t necessarily have an answer to that.

When I went to Italy for example, it was the first audience that was not purely Arab. They had a hard time not because of the content because they knew what I was talking about in terms of trans-identity and queerness but what they were confused about was the inside jokes or the context I was placing them in, which is the streets of Beirut. Which is taking a cab on the streets, which is ordering something, going into a club. What it means and how it is here because it is super distant and very specific to the city life in Lebanon. That was interesting for me because I didn’t have these comments over here, but over there I had to tell them: “Yeah, this is how we live here.” Full of surprises. What is cool is I always find new meaning. Like you, Tunde, told me when we met how you thought there was someone who died in my film. And that’s a new meaning because it makes sense now when you mention that first scene. Now I’m like “Oh yes, maybe, if you put it that way, that could be it.”

What you didn’t get a chance to talk about was your name and this whole idea of transmasculinity. And I’m curious if for you this is also linked to privilege?”

 “A recent thought has been eating me up lately. My name is Ash and my last name is Wadi. Wadi means valley in Arabic by the way.  Ash, actually is very linked to privilege, because when I was in my Mama’s tummy, they thought I was going to be born male. I had two older sisters and they were so sure that the third one was going to be a boy. And they called me Jad, which is a boy’s name in the Arabic language.

I knew that growing up and then, when I started to feel things, I hit puberty and looked up a bunch of stuff online. There really wasn’t enough media covering this. I was 14 when I started to realize what was going on. And back then, I’m 22 now, there wasn’t as much representation as we can see now. So I was looking at a lot of YouTube videos and so many vloggers, usually from the States, would talk about their experiences.”

I came across a lot of non-binary people and the way they chose their names was something neutral. My birth name was super gendered in a feminine way and I wanted to disassociate myself from it, even though I completely respect it and still really like my birth name. But I just really wanted to feel comfortable with my name and didn’t want something that was gendered in a masculine way as well because I didn’t want to fit that stereotype either.

I have a lot of trans friends that are Arab and they have really Arab names. And I’m just angry because I could have just gone for Jad, which is the real Arab name that was actually given to me, before I was born. Then I wouldn’t have had to disassociate myself and choose the name Ash which is super Westernized. When I introduce myself here in Arabic, a lot of people have a hard time pronouncing it or understanding why my name is Ash or where it comes from. That name doesn’t exist in the Arabic language. But Ash has been there for so long, for five years now, so I won’t go around changing it again. I could but I think it’s okay this way.

I recognize my privilege not only concerning my name, but also because my Mom gave me the French passport and my Dad the American passport. They were born and grew up in these respective countries before we moved to Saudi Arabia and later on to Beirut. And now I’m here. I have to keep that in mind because a lot of my surroundings, if not most of them, don’t have the opportunity to just cross borders easily, which is shocking and surprising and makes me question my own identity. Hence my guilt sometimes because of my name, what I get to say and where I stand. That’s the privilege. I think it’s important to recognize your privilege and to admit it. Use it as your power, talk about it instead of just using your privilege and taking off. I just own it and live my life. It is my duty as someone who is really marginalized in this society, to stay here for a while and talk about my Arabness and not just say: “Yeah, I’m American, French, trans…”. No, the first thing I always answer is: “I’m Arab and I was born with a Muslim background.

And trans masculinity? I can’t define what it means to be trans masculine or trans. I just know that sometimes you disassociate yourself from your body. That’s one thing. And you also disassociate yourself from the gender that was put upon you. Because at the end of the day it was something that was heavily constructed and I very strongly believe in the ability to play around with that. I believe in gender fluidity and sexual fluidity and it’s where I see myself today.

I believe I can continue to experiment with my body. And I don’t believe in the natural body anymore. I think it nog longer actually exists for me. We are all the consequence of natural selection. We continue to morph. It’s a continuous metamorphosis for everybody, not only trans people. I really believe that we are all continuous. We keep changing and our bodies react to these changes. It’s a physical change, be it in our brains, be it in our bodies, something that can be visible on the outside or an invisible change, ..."

Do you mean that people change due to the environment and pollution as well?

“Exactly and we are changing along with it. As a result to both our choices and the way our brain is advancing. A lot of people have a hard time thinking about that. Me recognizing this and believing in this specific route allowed me to be less afraid of injecting hormones into my body. Because it sounds so robotic, it sounds so chemical, when at the end of the day we are doing it, every single day, in very different ways. So, it is just a matter of experimenting with what is given to us, what we keep finding in science and what not. In order to please ourselves, to feel comfortable.

At first, when I was much younger, I didn’t understand it at all but then more and more as I calmed myself down with these thoughts I no longer feel as if I am lying to myself. It’s an actual belief. I think it’s unfortunate for those who don’t want to experiment with their gender expression, with the way they dress up, with the way they talk to people. With the way they create something.

It’s a play at the end of the day, I really think that I’m in a play, the earth is my theatre, its’ my stage and everywhere I go into is a different prop, everything I touch is a prop and I get to be whoever I want, whichever character. We are all doing role play at the end of the day. We are all meeting people, we are all performing. It’s  performance, it’s literally that. And why not? Let us have fun. That’s how I see it. My trans masculinity is because I recognized that I have a preference to what was labeled as masculine gendered items in terms of clothing, posture, talking, … Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that feminine and masculine are the respective lengths to malehood and femininity. Masculine is just a gender expression. And non-binary because, or gender fluid if non-binary is not the specific word, it would be gender fluid because I don’t want to be at the extremities of that set construct, which is the binary."

*They: in English, the plural form of pronouns is a common way to refer to persons who identify with neither binary gender.

**Transmasculinity is a term used to describe transgender persons who were assigned the female gender at birth, but who identify s male rather than female.