DAGGERCRAFT: Sarjon Azouz on Weapons, Masculinity and Nationhood

When did I learn how to scream?
What tent was I protecting with my voice?
What enemy was approaching us and why couldn’t I scream?
Why couldn’t I scream?

On Saturday 25 of March, Sarjon Azouz performed their work Khanees Al 3issam at the exhibition ID expired. In this interview, our correspondent Michiel Teeuw reflects with them on the work.

Michiel Teeuw: What is it about gender deviants[1] and weapons?

Sarjon Azouz: Yes! That’s a good question. When we are working with traumatic experiences, creating a weapon for yourself is maybe the easiest way to feel like you’re in control. Most of the time, in these traumatic experiences, we are the victim. In my work, I’m constantly trying to find a way to not present myself as the victim of the story I want to tell. Although I am the victim, I am not anymore. I’m trying to claim back some narrative that I have no agency/power over.

MT: Why do you not want to be a victim?

SA: It’s just about being tired of it, that’s the simplest answer I can think of. When I’m working with those works, I don’t feel like a victim, but I still feel the urgency to still put those stories on the table, discuss and nuance them. I think a weapon is a way to do this.

The dagger is a ridiculous weapon we never see, it’s almost too historical to be real: it’s like so high camp. I feel like it’s the easiest trick to feel like we’re about to fight something. You’re the only one in the space who has a weapon, so you’re surely the most powerful and dominant. You’re gonna win because you made that setting and weapon for yourself. This weapon is so dysfunctional: there’s an iPad in the middle of the blade. When I started making it, I wanted something so awkward to look at. It was another rendition of this idea of creating screening spaces that can be performed. It needed to be useless, just perform as the weapon, and have the dominance and intimidation factors of the weapon. But if you really look at it, you see how toyish and useless it is. 

MT: I’m interested in switching the temporal logics between the still image and the performance. In my own recent works, for example, I have been experimenting with switching these around: having the performance be ever-present and continuous, like a painting on the wall, while the still image only appears shortly and dramatically, like an actor would. 

SA: I’m thinking about the screen as a performer. I am still not sure why I’m interested in using the screen, camera and cinema tropes in performance. Something really strange happens when it comes to those cinema constructions and genres. Action, comedy, horror: you can tell when you’re watching something, and you can orient your body towards it. But once these techniques are used in real-life performance, and you’re using the same techniques, it automatically gets nuanced and everything breaks in. It becomes a subnarrative, a meta-layer to the overall narrative. Especially in the awkwardness of the white cube. Even if you make a joke or say something sweet, there’s always this very intense way that you receive these very well-constructed genres. Playing with the screen while performing gave me quite a fun way of tackling that.

MT: Do you feel the audience becomes more implicated when these cinematic tropes are transposed into the white cube, either as performed actions or as on-screen videos?

SA: When they are both present, there’s definitely more dominance for the body than the screen. You tend to fully ignore what’s happening on the screen. The screen almost becomes evidence for something that you’re watching. When it’s attached to me, and I carry it, you can’t fully follow what’s going on on the screen. I think that’s what’s interesting about it: you’re not seated and watching it right in front of you, getting everything the director put in there. You have to somehow compromise losing information. You can try to follow it, but nobody does that. Most of the time, people are stiff as fuck during performances and will not budge. So even if there are really funny things happening on the screen, the fact that you can’t access it will be quite disturbing. It’s almost unreachable.

MT: In the performance, you switch the screen towards and away from the audience. Your speech and song also switch between English and Arabic. Do you see these as similar gestures of opacity and transparency?

SA: The language-switch was fully for practical reasons, since I knew my audience wasn’t Arabic-speaking. The English parts were only the explanation, tracking down how the entity is present in the space with them. If my audience were Arabic-speaking, the performance would be very very different. I would only sing the songs, and not explain anything – I would completely change the set-up. Most of the time when I’m choreographing, context is always running in my mind. To whom am I performing, and in what place is it?

MT: And you perform in different settings like queer nights, vogue balls, other kinds of context. Is there value for you to perform for straight audiences?

SA: Not much actually, it’s like screaming into the void. Especially when I’m talking about stuff that relates to my national identity, to a white audience. The audience – to whom I’m performing – is really important, but this work in particular was for my mom. I knew it was going to be filmed and I really wanted to make something for her. She’s referenced a lot in the poem. I wanted to create something really beautiful for her, so she was 50% the audience I was performing for. Yes, she wasn’t there, but she was in my mind while I was making all of this. 

Another part of who I’m performing for, is the vision that I have, which I want to happen at all costs. Even if it’s for a white audience, it doesn’t matter as long as it exists. I need the vision to come to life and see how it does that.  For example, this was the first time I worked with my brother, with the bust piece that he made. It was a perfect timing and project to do so: to give him this shirt from my dad to lace and feminise. 

So with all of those things, it’s like: Oh, it was a shame that in the end it was a predominantly white cis audience, but it doesn’t matter. As long as all the things that I wanted to happen did come together. I was able to make it happen. So it’s almost fine, but it didn’t really bring me anything. Especially the white cube audience, even if it’s a queer audience. It always feels to me like a research space; a space to test things, not to gain something back but rather to make things happen for yourself. I’m still processing what it is to be a performer in a white cube, especially in drag. It’s literally the strangest thing. How quiet it is… In the club you don’t really hear the heels walking you know?

MT: I want to discuss a fragment from your text:

But when the war did come, everything changed, 
and instead of protecting the tent,
they protected him, and him, and HIM!
He and him, the pronouns I could not protect. 
And so I fled. I fled the war and manhood.
The pronouns and the land. 

Could you share something about how this part came together?

SA: I wanted to write about both fleeing and craving a national identity, as well as a less fluid national identity that doesn’t drive you crazy. But I also experience a lot of gender-envy from men. Although I’m AMAB, I don’t feel like I am. When I act like it, behave like it, or perform my (he/him) pronouns, I feel like I am scamming. I feel like I’m so feminine, that everything which relates to (he/him) is beyond my access. But at the same time I want it. I’m so envious of men. I want to be a man. In the text as well, I want to be the man – for my mom. But also culturally, being the man of the house is partially patriarchal of course, but there’s also this safety that a man should be able to provide. The performance refers to my memory of a military exercise: protecting the tent by screaming at an ambush. I remember not being man enough to scream STOP when the ambush person came… That stuck with me as one of the ways that proved I wasn’t man enough. I like when people use he/him on me, cause it’s a little chuckle between me and myself – like hehe, I made it. But I don’t believe it myself. This poem was claiming Syrian manhood. Syrianhood was quite claimed by the regime and patriarchy. There’s a lot of longing in the poem. I want to access this but I can’t claim or defend you and I don’t even want you but there’s a lot of longing, homesickness, and gender envy. That is what’s going on, and it’s quite diaristic in that sense. There’s no political statement, no trying to fight nobody or trying to point fingers. I wrote it from how I feel. 

At the beginning of my research, I stumbled upon the google question: Why do arab men carry daggers?

And historically, they never fought with them. They never used daggers for territory stuff. They’re really small knives, they don’t do much. But when you put it on your waist, it really performs your manhood. I said to myself: if I want to be a man, I need a dagger, I need a sword. I found another prop for my gender expression, and for my national identity. 

MT: I’m interested in what happens when you say that you weren’t able to defend the land. The inability you describe doesn’t sound essentialist to me, but rather actually opens up the space of being able to defend the land – especially by the past tense, which ascribes a certain momentariness to this inability. I want to contextualise this in relation to earlier described cinematic tropes, especially the Psycho cinematic horror trope of a transfeminine killer. Somehow for me your statement already opens up the imaginary of the gender deviant as a defendant of territory – something I think is unthinkable for lots of people. 

SA: I think I got what you’re trying to say. Again, it’s not a statement. When I say I can’t defend anybody, I’m not saying that to anybody – just to myself. This is also really for my mom to see something trying to figure out itself, and saying it’s okay it can’t defend the land. I’m definitely not proving something to anybody. This entity is talking to itself, self-assuring rather than addressing what’s going on.

MT: It doesn’t feel like an address or statement, but at the same time it ontologically opens it up.

SA: Even then, all of us in the Queer community say that to ourselves from a sense of guilt. This or any other thing. The fact that we don’t really have a choice in any of it doesn’t mean we can’t say it. Have I had the choice? There’s a constant questioning there, even when we’re aware that we’re not in control. At the same time, on the complete opposite of that spectrum: We’re so fucking powerful, that we’re doing impossible things. That’s why it’s really confusing to figure out what we are and aren’t able to do. I really need to say that because sometimes we feel like we’re so not on that table deciding what’s going on in the world. But we’re creating our own rules at the same time, which is quite the move right?

SA: Also, the weapon in itself starts to mould into a shield. I’m showing something and hiding behind it, rather than being about to attack. The iPad being heavy, and needing to be in a screening position. I’m showing something. This shifted the choreography, which was based on this (now) cultural practice called Harradad (?), this group of folklore sword dancers who fight for entertainment at weddings. With that sword I made, I can’t do this movement. I can’t attack. It materialises that particular need for defense rather than attacking. And when the sword turns to me, it looks like a mirror. 

MT: A sword always punctuates or slashes. Who is the sword’s recipient here?

SA: There’s always a victim to a weapon, you mean? I’m first thinking of the intention of making it, which really was to affirm gender. At the same time, making it was creating a dysfunctional weapon. It’s not even sharp. When you hold it, it’s like a branch. In any way or form, it cannot stab or slash anything. And I think that fundamentally, this is what that prop was made for, to resist that weapon, and to blur the line what that tool is about. In the poem, I reference: how can I fight the land in the diaspora? This is the weapon for fighting an enemy which isn’t around you. You don’t know what you will slash, and the only thing you have is evidence it exists. So the evidence, or the screenshots, are your weapon. Which I think is what a lot of people in the diaspora do: sharing, screenshotting, following the news, producing media. You’re so not even in the land where the actual problem is happening but you’re so much an affected byproduct of the thing you’re trying to fight. This sword is an awkward attempt to be in the picture, but being shunned away by it. 


text by Michiel Teeuw
with quotes from Khanees al 3issam
featuring images from Sarjon’s Instagram stories
and Khanees al 3issam (stills) – recorded by Klaas Koetje & Enrica Arbia

[1] In this article, I’ve opted to use the term “gender deviants” as an alternative to “gender non-conforming” and “transgender”, both of which are more specifically rooted in West European notions of gender. Of course, the phrase “deviant” begs the question: deviating from what?