My.Kali is no ordinary magazine.
As the Arab world’s first LGBTI media outlet, it’s a shining beacon in the way it addresses homophobia and transphobia while defying gender binaries across the Middle East and North Africa – a region unfortunately marred with various forms of systemic homophobia and discrimination.
The online-only, bi-monthly magazine was launched almost by accident, but its founder and creative director, Khalid Abdel-Hadi, certainly isn’t complaining; it’s now poised to unveil its 10th anniversary edition in the coming weeks.
“It wasn't a studied project at all, it was me and a bunch of friends who came together – they wanted to host an event and I wanted to establish a blog or a publication, so we combined both ideas,” he recalls.
“It was just random articles that I wrote and we didn't take the whole thing seriously, I simply wanted to write about the things that mattered to me in a magazine form, then things escalated and it went from there.”
My.Kali was founded in late 2007 by a group of university students, led by Abdel-Hadi, with various backgrounds in design, the arts, and politics. Based in Amman, Jordan, the webzine was named after Abdel-Hadi’s nickname Kali and published exclusively in English. Abdel-Hadi tells SBS Sexuality it was born out of his obsession with publications and design, and from not being able to find content in local and regional media that he could identify with as a gay man in the Middle East.
For the first time, the LGBTI community in Jordan – and eventually the rest of the Arab world – had a point of reference that wasn’t imported from the west. Through his publication, Abdel-Hadi and his team have created a platform for Arab LGBTI people. It has also played a part in forcing many in the region to recognise and acknowledge their presence, even it was in a derogatory manner.
While Jordan may be one of the few Arabic-speaking countries where there is no legal ground to criminalise homosexuality – in fact, it was decriminalised for consenting persons over 16 in 1951, well before Australia followed suit – My.Kali has still endured a lot of challenges.
This was particularly true during its debut issue. When it went live online – with Abdel-Hadi himself on the cover – things took an unexpected turn when it attracted the ire of conservative newspaper Ammon News. The newspaper’s sensationalist reporting on My.Kali was picked up by various news outlets across the Arab world, outing a then 18-year-old Abdel-Hadi against his will in the process.
“For years I didn't have the education or guidance of how to run the publication and to reach its ultimate and much needed goals,” Abdel-Hadi reflects.
“We were conducting many mistakes in public, but each time we try to learn from our mistakes.”
Indeed, after learning from various controversies and obstacles over the years, in 2016 Abdel-Hadi thought My.Kali should publish in Arabic for the first time – alongside its usual English version. The aim was to expand its reach by using the common language of the region, rather than restricting it to the educated or bilingual.
“With the Arabic version, it was a conscious and calculated decision and much-needed step,” Abdel-Hadi says, comparing it to the accidental nature of the debut issue.
He goes on to reveal that although May/June 2016 edition received “massive buzz”, it also led to My.Kali’s website being blocked by the Jordanian government.
Fearing further reprisals from the media, Abdel-Hadi placed further editions of My.Kali on hold. In the meantime, he and his team maintained a social media presence and some articles were moved to online publishing platform Medium.
However, almost a year after the being blocked by the government, Dima Tahboub – a Jordanian MP whose party is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – attracted global headlines for her relentless homophobic campaign against My.Kali.
Although things were particularly tough during the Tahboub controversy, Abdel-Hadi notes that he had a supportive network to help him weather the storm. After staying silent for several weeks, My.Kali published an open letter in August addressed to the MP.
“Often homophobia is pushed through the sensationalist media that targets us, and you get to see the reactions via their social media comments,” Abdel-Hadi reflects.
“We usually collect the stereotypes that spread within the general public when it comes to understanding the LGBTQ+ community, and we address them.
“When the Dima Tahboub situation occurred, we saw that she was trying to claim the blockage, and most importantly, the hate she generated through the media, therefore we had address the issue within a public letter to her that was composed in collaboration local activists and the magazine's members,” he explains.
“The letter addressed the dangers of spreading hate towards social minorities, the responsibility that comes with being an MP and the need to respect and listen to those who differ from you and what you represent.”
Refusing to let detractors like Tahboub win, My.Kali returned from its brief hiatus with a September/October 2017 issue – which was also published online with English and Arabic versions. They also moved to a brand new website domain that is free from censorship.
Looking back, Abdel-Hadi is proud of how far the magazine has come – both in terms of professional standards and for the difference it is making for LGBTI people in the Arab world. If anything, the latter is what has kept him driven and motivated over the past decade.
He recalls one particular moment when he and his team were putting together the seventh anniversary edition for January/February 2014.
“We were publishing letters from readers from 2007,” Abdel-Hadi recounts.
“One of them was from a fellow who lived outside the capital, saying he was contemplating suicide but he came across My.Kali, and then he said he felt inspired and not alone.
“When someone sends you something like that, you feel, ‘okay, you must be doing something right’.”
Another highlight for Abdel-Hadi was regarding Khalaf Yousef, a former sheikh who attracted news headlines after he publicly came out as gay on his YouTube channel. The Jordanian ministry he worked for subsequently fired him, his family outcast him and threatened to kill him, and he fled to Canada via Lebanon as a refugee.
A few years later in May 2016, Yousef took to social media to explain what made him decide to come out. He did so by posting an image of My.Kali’s July/August 2011 issue which had Abdel-Hadi on the cover, thanking him for being the catalyst.
“I found myself suddenly crying because you notice the fact that you affect other people’s lives and that fact that you inspire other people to see their truth,” Abdel-Hadi says.
“It made me feel like, ‘you’re doing something right, you’re here for a reason, you are contributing positively as part of this community’.”
Elias Jahshan is London-based journalist. He is a former Arab Council Australia board member and a former editor of Star Observer. Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan