Queering the Ghazal

“In fugue or bastard ghazal, she is seeking no place like home. / When language becomes a girl, she speaks for a voice like home.”

Trish Salah, an Arab Canadian transgender writer, takes the ghazal–a traditional Arabic lyric form–and makes it her own in the deft series “Ghazals in Fugue” (13-18). In light of writing on and against what Lisa Robertson in the introduction calls is “a gendered Arabic and Bedouin song tradition,” this is a political act (xii). The shifting contours of Salah’s form gives space for another subjectivity. Or, as Robertson puts it: “Through lyric the body is enduringly heretical” (xiv).

“As we were, sweet with wine, spiraling need, commanded from home / You plaited, out of sight, a sex; below stars swam lights down, home.”

The ghazal’s form requires the repetition of a refrain word/phrase. Akin to how heteronormativity compels a series of repeated performances of assigned gender (e.g., Judith Butler’s reading of gender as a performative utterance). However, Salah’s couplets reproduce unfaithfully and there are queer slippages. For instance, in section VIIIa: close/disclose/encloses/fist closes/after this (17). “Close” appears in the final words but is dislodged and transposed from its position as final word to part of the final word (not even at the end of it) and then removed altogether as the focus shifts to the penultimate syllable as the source of the rhyme for the final line.

“A nervous girl, no less in love than in her mother’s own home. / In finely stretched olive skin, she becomes less, and less at home.”

Or consider the couplets I am weaving throughout my essay–from the seventh stanza of the poem. How they resignify the bodies of language, even without changing a letter. Home/”home” is unsettled even through its repetitions.  Bastardized ghazal questions the idea of an “original” or essential. Assigned gender is a biological construct. Even when the same word re-appears, it connotes a wide range of emotions and desires, as well as places. Through this word “home,” Salah carves a shapeshifting body seeking a home in transition, all the while reconfiguring desire, love, and language.

Foreign names your distrust: old sorrows drawn out, poise to steal home. / Finger a war fetish; drink deep, slake – of her red Real–your ‘home.'”

The metaphor of foreignness enables Salah to analogize her racial displacement and other-ing to her sense of other-ness within how her body is called. Shifting pronouns–you and she–further dramatize this tension. Forced assimilation (“hastily made-up white face”) to pass as normal outside; but when we come home we can wash it off. Or at least we “tell ourselves it’s home.” What does it mean to feel alien even at home? To experience a sense of Other-ness even within your own community?

“Where do you go when she speaks? your story recoiled from home – /  Less errant than in orbit yoked – wanes, jealous moments from home.”

In music, fugue form is contrapuntal- it interweaves a melodic line against variations of it – at different speeds, or even sometimes upside down or backwards. By calling her series of ghazals a “fugue,” Salah creates a space for counterpoint: a dizzying matrix of themes and voices dissembling sex, gender, race, and language. Trace the motifs: you, too dark to read, war, quiet, fall, war, love, home/”home”, close, chance, to be/Araby. And the characters: she/I/you/we/who.  Hear them here, and watch the limbs unhinge.  Then, carry on home… in a foreign land.

“We wash off hastily made-up white face, tell ourselves we’re home. / Starved: how family keeps coming up. Coincident deserts course ‘home.'”


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