Ever-evolving with Cold Cuts

7 Mins read

The editor-in-chief Mohamad Abdouni reflects on the dynamic nature of the project, documenting histories, and growing with art.

“How did you feel when you first wore a dress?”

This question was posed to Jamal Abdo, a Lebanese entertainer, by interviewer Joy Stacey. Jamal answered: “It felt like I was liberated from the cage I had been in.”

This exchange is part of a series of vulnerable and moving conversations that make up a special edition of Cold Cuts magazine entitled Treat Me Like Your Mother: Trans Histories From Beirut’s Forgotten Past.

Candid, and lit up with the vibrance of humanity, the documented conversations and photography of Treat Me Like Your Mother set out to “afford our elders basic dignity, visibility, love and kindness.”

Cold Cuts magazine is a photo journal documenting queer culture and history in the SWANA (Southwest Asia/North Africa) region.

The editor-in-chief, Mohamad Abdouni, is an award winning photographer and filmmaker whose work has been featured by names including Vogue US and Italia, Burberry, Gucci, Fendi, Vice, and GQ Middle East.

His critically acclaimed photography and films have been seen all over – through exhibitions in Beirut, Stockholm, Paris, Leeds, New York City, and more.

A dimly lit art gallery, exhibiting portrait photos of trans elders in Lebanon
Exhibition view – MINA Image Center, Beirut, Lebanon – Treat Me Like Your Mother, 2022 [Mohamad Abdouni]

As the second publication he’s founded, Mohamad Abdouni started Cold Cuts having learned what he did and didn’t enjoy. “One of the main things was flexibility. I had no flexibility in my previous publication. And so I wanted Cold Cuts to be something that’s ever evolving.”

He describes the endeavour as having an ephemeral definition; so while it has so far been exploring queer cultures in the SWANA region, it’s by no means bound to any one theme in particular.

“It is kind of like an extension of myself, or an extension of my practice.” he tells us. “I use it as a physical, print based umbrella to the curiosities that I have, the affinities that I have, and the things that I’ve been wanting to explore with myself or with different artists.”

“Even though the outcome itself is almost rid of my presence, the reason it even exists is because of personal questions and affinities I have. Just like I am ever changing, Cold Cuts is also going to be changing.”

Mohamad Abdouni

In terms of media that compelled him early in life, Mohamad recalls being fascinated by Rolling Stone.

“I think now they’ve changed their size back to quite a traditional regular size, but at the time they were really big, and they would always stand out on the shelves. And they always had spectacular covers. Obviously photography is always a big part of any cover, but it felt like there were just a lot of creative minds behind every single cover. Every cover told a story.”

Western popular culture played a big part in Mohamad’s formative years. Rolling Stone‘s convergence of arts and politics “almost turned reality into something that’s fictional in a very interesting way.”

But he’s described being motivated by a lack of references and foundational media for queer people in the SWANA region.

A portrait photo of a Lebanese woman. She has black hair, ornate earrings, and wears a leopard print top.
Portrait of a Lebanese woman from Treat Me Like Your Mother [Mohamad Abdouni]

“I think it’s definitely something that’s changing with time, and it’s changing quite rapidly. But at the time, there was nothing really that felt like home when it came to representing anything that varies from heteronormative lifestyles in the regional media that we would be consuming, or the regional media that our parents would always have around the house, which in turn, obviously, we consume,” he told us.

“And I think it’s natural that I, much like everyone else at the time, would gravitate towards Western media to be able to spot certain similarities that we have, that we felt we might have been singular in feeling when, in fact, we were not.”

To Mohamad, “representation is a fickle word in nature.” While the practice of conveying different stories in art work feels straightforward, the term itself feels harder to place a sufficient function on. How does an individual artist effectively represent the diverse interests and experiences of a group?

“I prefer using the term documenting, because I feel like that’s personally what I do. I document, at the end of the day, with no specific narrative or agenda. Just quite literally documenting a past that the majority of us are unfortunately unaware of, and try to record these histories that have not been recorded before, to cement them as a part of history that we should be aware of.”

As an artist, Mohamad gets the sense that having complete control over your own work isn’t possible once it’s out there.

“I try as much as possible to make sure that the work itself can only be viewed as documentary work. Stating, recording, without agendas.”

Mohamad Abdouni

“I think my work automatically falls within a global political conversation, that I’m perhaps not always standing behind.” he explains. “Which is why it’s important to distinguish the fact that what I do is documenting. And the fact that the work inherently falls within certain conversations happens because once the work is out there, you have much less control over it.

It’s not a matter of having a neutral way of looking at it, but where it’s actually meant to be literally information. Informational documentation. Once the work is out there. You can only do so much, which is why I think the bulk of my work happens before the work is out there. Then you do what you can in interviews, but at the end of the day, interviews are read much less – it’s the work that’s going to be viewed the most, and fall into those conversations.”

In not pushing meaning towards audiences, the work is able to be presented to people who can imbue it with their own significance as it relates to them. But Mohamad is trying to make work that carries information that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to many interpretations.

He gives an example: “When it comes to Treat Me Like Your Mother, the women’s views on the world and the women’s own retellings of their own histories are actually quite binary. And there’s no judgement on that. I present that the way it is, there is no editing of their history; the entire book is actually just transcriptions of their interviews as they are. Because the interviews were done in Arabic, the English version of the book reads in a clumsy way, almost, as if it’s not very well written. It’s not a smooth, easy read. 

A portrait of a Lebanese women. The top half displays her leopard print dress and bejeweled shawl. The second half displays the top of the image that shows her face.
Another portrait from Treat Me Like Your Mother [Mohamad Abdouni]

“And that’s because we really wanted to almost translate the original Arabic transcriptions into English as authentically as possible, even if that meant losing smoothness in the writing. So there was no real editing at all. The only things that were edited out were sensitive information that might put the woman in any danger, which we were really mindful of. So that was the only editing that was done – removing little pieces of information here and there, that might just be problematic. But generally, there’s no judgement or opinion given in the entire project on any of the views of the women.”

Mohamad Abdouni is more interested in exploring personal truths and questions than assuming the responsibilities that artists often speak about feeling. In fact, he rejects them. The burden of being responsible for documenting or representing anything isn’t something he’s interested in carrying.

“At the end of the day, I’m not an activist.” he explains. “In no way, shape, or form do I ever identify as an activist. I am a person who happens to express themselves through their work, and the work is of an artistic nature. So, the only responsibility I feel I have is with my reflections, my documentation, the answers I find to my own personal questions, to make sure that I package them for whoever else might have the same curiosities or interests in a way that is respectful, truthful, and genuine.”

Working on projects that allow him to follow what he is going through personally is what works for Mohamad. The Treat Me Like Your Mother edition of Cold Cuts stemmed from personal questions on identity, gender, and sexuality that he had and wanted to explore.

“These women have taught me, in the past four years of working on this project, much more about myself and have made me comfortable in my own gender than current political conversations about queerness and bodies ever have.”

Mohamad Abdouni

“I’ve always felt alienated by the current political conversations about, about genders and pronouns.” he tells us.

“And being with these women created a sense of comfort in me where everything became so much simpler. So there’s, on a personal level, a sort of resolve that allows me to put that aside for now, and go on tackling other things.”

Childhood is a big part of what Mohamad is thinking about recently, and therefore working on. Growing up in a village in rural Lebanon, he describes a sense of distance he felt from between himself and his hometown.

“To me, I always felt like I never really belonged there. I had nothing to do with it and it had nothing to do with me.”

But recently, Mohamad has reframed this way of thinking. “I’ve realised, especially in the past two years, that almost everything about me – whether it’s my affinities, my lifestyle, even the physicality of my body, my biology, the way my stomach works, the way everything about me work – is inherently linked to that place.

A person stands in a narrow hallway. They have a full face of makeup and a long black wig. They are wearing only underwear and eating a baguette.
Mohamad Abdouni’s work captures trans histories in Lebanon and the Arab World [Mohamad Abdouni]

“And to the culture I grew up with. A culture that I’ve later strayed away from, but a culture that inherently is a big part of myself. And there’s a lot of work to be done there in terms of myself reconciling with that.”

When it comes to Treat Me Like Your Mother, even though the work is seen as this general global work of trans histories in Lebanon and the Arab world, it is, at the end of the day, a very personal endeavour to Mohamad.

Through exploring and answering questions he has about himself, he’s able to uncover information that others find helpful in the process.  

“That’s why I packaged the work in such a way that can be accessible to others.” Mohamad says. “And that’s why it’s always important that the work is always accessible for free for everyone. That’s why the book is not only a book that you can buy, but it is a PDF that is available for free for everyone. That’s why the archive is available, as has been deposited in the Arab Image Foundation so that researchers, writers, artists, people who just want to know more can access it.”

In terms of the future of Cold Cuts, Mohamad is looking forward to getting to know and working with interesting people.

“Actually collaborating with different artists and actually working with different people without finances getting in the way. Whether it’s people that I’m working with and getting to know because of their own stories, or if it’s other artists. Artists, writers, researchers that I love and appreciate.”

All things Cold Cuts can be found here, with a free PDF of Treat Me Like Your Mother available on the website.

Featured image by Mohamad Abdouni: Exhibition view / Lyon Biennale France. I Feel Only Fear (Manifesto of Fragility), 2022.

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