Written By: Moussa Saleh
Translated by Ahmed Yousuf Sumait
Copy editing by T.W.
The Moroccan-Canadian artist Mehdi Bahmad is best known for his atypical artistic production, in which he seeks to fight the hetero-normative values and patterns enshrined in our Arabic-speaking societies. These themes are especially highlighted in one of Mehdi Bahmad’s latest releases “H.E.N.N.A.” or “Hinna” in Arabic.
“HENNA” follows the release of a previous single, “Rouge à lèvres” or “Lipstick”, which tackles the stain of beauty products and how it is conventionally attributed to femininity. In “Rouge à lèvres”, Mehdi stresses that gender expression and sexuality shouldn’t be identified by the use of beauty products.
In HENNA, Bahmad uses his relationship with his father, and the Henna plant he cultivated, as an inspirational ground to write this song. Mehdi didn’t use to apply Henna, but instead uses it as a symbol, a plant that his father used to grow as a child in his village “Aït Zeggane” in Morocco. Closely associated with the Islamic culture, the Henna plant was also considered a favorite of Prophet Muhammed’s (pbuh).
Throughout the video, this relationship is embodied through the use of simple hand gestures. As an indication of the culture and traditions governing both Morocco and Arab society in general, Henna is used by Mehdi as a means of misleading those patriarchal relationships that surround him as a non-normative person such as the family and the Muslim community in general from the “forbidden acts” he practices. In HENNA we do not see beyond his Henna masked hands; an act to show them that he is following their path.
For Mehdi, the HENNA plant, is a strong fortress allowing him to do what he wishes and think of what he wants, without the need for prior approval or permission. As a mask, Henna remains as the sole guarantee to meet their hetero-normative criteria.
In a direct confrontation, Mehdi blames his father who never strived to know what they really needed, and never gave room for discussion or any exchange of ideas or beliefs.
Bahmad places himself in opposition to the beliefs and normative values that accept no differences. Directly defying his father’s faith in the concept of heaven and hell and his interpretation of Islam and religious teachings that consecrate patriarchal, gender and sexual stereotypes, Bahmad promises himself to fly high beyond the gardens of Eden. Nevertheless Bahmad adheres to his roots and Moroccan traditions, so that in turn, they may dig deeper than the inferno he was threatened with.
Written and directed by Mehdi Bahmad, HENNA highlights the structures that attempt to govern sexual practices and gender expression; from the patriarchal hierarchy of the father to the religious institutions and political systems. This pictorial work expresses the cycles of blame and hatred that members of LGBTQIA+ receive, solely because they do not meet the standards and forms of relationships imposed by these systems. Moreover, Bahmad uses HENNA as a challenge to the authorities of those institutions that claim to govern who goes to heaven or burns in hell by confirming that he doesn’t fit those norms and inherited indoctrinations, to get beyond what they promise.
Bahmad tries to break free from the normative standards of life and beliefs that do not resemble him and suppress his right to express himself, but he is prevented by his father. In the video, the hand of his father clamps around Bahmad’s wrist and returns it to his knees. In a distorted echo of a children’s tickling game which aims to make children laugh by tickling them from the bottom of the armpits, the arms reach out to Mehdi’s neck in a blunt representation of the oppression practiced by his community. An oppression that is still subjected to many LGBTQIA+ individuals, both regionally and internationally.
“It is very important at some point to understand that our parents grew up in a time that differs from ours, and we must overcome the urge to persuade them otherwise,”
HENNA does not show us anyone beyond that of Bahmad, his father and society. Bahmad stands alone facing his father and community, in reference to the struggle that often many non-normative individuals face. A struggle that can manifest physically and/or psychologically with no support system, especially in early life stages. However, this does not take away from the significance of the support that Mehdi and many other LGBTQIA+ individuals receive from small circles of friends and loved ones.
In the flow of the discussion with Bahmad during the interview, we asked him about the evolving view of parents in the Arab region towards the sexuality of their sons and daughters. In Mehdi’s belief that things are gradually developing for the better, but in a slow pace. Unfortunately, a view that for several reasons is still influenced by the social and the political backgrounds.
About his own experience, Bahmad says, “There are many factors that have contributed to the change in the perception of his father, and the bridging of distances between them.” Mehdi’s mother, who sympathizes with Mehdi and his sister, is saddened by the circumstances and social constraints and supports them to confront it. This in part, has made his father realizes that religiosity does not necessarily imply a lack of tolerance and compassion.
“It’s never too late,” Bahmad said regarding his relationship with his father. “I love my father and I will always love him.”
“It is very important at some point to understand that our parents grew up in a time that differs from ours, and we must overcome the urge to persuade them otherwise, or focus solely on gaining their approval, and move forward in our lives.”
After recording “HENNA” for the first time, Mehdi’s father showed pride in him. Mehdi expressed his happiness with that satisfaction and confirmed his belief as “the effect of art is very strong and fruitful”.
Regarding the Arab region and its aspirations for LGBTQIA+ individuals and people, Mehdi says we all need to gather and communicate, something that has become possible after the digital revolution. “We are all going through almost the same circumstances, and we have never had a chance to express our identities and culture at the same time, to show how the two can come together.”
Mehdi praises his Arab roots and culture strongly and seems eager to highlight the beauty it beholds within an authentic Arab culture that accepts differences and respects one’s freedom. “I hope we can reconnect with our culture and civilization without the sense of molding to specific norms and patterns. It’s time to celebrate our rich and mesmerizing culture.”
In conclusion, Bahmad expresses his enthusiasm and happiness in hopes that his work in the Arab region can one day be presented. He stresses that he is now searching for a safe space where he nurtures himself and his courage to face the difficulties and confrontations, especially those of his extended family in Morocco that he hopes won’t negatively affect his parents.