Almaarii is a collaborative storytelling initiative started on Instagram for Queer people in South Asia to collect narratives on what closets mean to them, closets that are “often withheld, hidden, or lost in translation.”
Jo, the administrator of Almaarii, says it is an “exploratory space talking about the non/existence of ‘closets’ in the South Asian context. Almaarii collects stories of having or not having these spaces and imagines them through illustrative work.”
It connects queer folx to illustrators who draw out descriptions of closets of South Asian people who identify themselves as being on the LGBTQI+ spectrum of a/sexual and a/gender identities. This unique project explores queer experiences and takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions through the visuals and its context.
Almaarii has been around for nearly three years, attracting many South Asian queer folx to describe a physical manifestation of their closet. Illustrators use these descriptions to present astounding visuals of closets such as a library, a treehouse greenhouse, a poem, and from a shabby shack adrift in space to a magical mystical place.
Jo, a Ph.D. candidate of Anthropology and Sociology and researcher at SOAS, University of London conceptualized Almaarii with their partner, Teenasai (@grapeguitarbox on Instagram). The project began with a simple yet intriguing question, “What would our closet look like if it indeed did exist?”
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It ignited the spark that led to a project which shared about 185 such narratives and collections by furthermore asking, “Would it be dark and sad? Or would it be a space of protection someone has built for themselves? Why are some people happier staying in the closet while some are not?”
“What would be some of the things one would have in their closet if it were, in fact, a real thing they could access? Would it have a music system? A keyboard? Would it be painted all colors of the rainbow, have queer magazines and posters? Would it be silent, or are friends invited? Would it be technologically sound or one that’s cut off?”
Previously named “Our Closet Project”, it was later called Almaarii. As mentioned on Almaarii’s Instagram Highlights, they asked their friends what words they would use to describe this place that held them, whether together or in pieces. They used many words- some familiar and some completely unknown.
The words included ‘koodu’, ‘kaavu’, ‘ghufa’, ‘almirah’, ‘almaarii’, ‘ghar’, and so many more. “Yet, to unify all our experiences, we called it Almaarii- because we are all somewhat familiar with the word, and because we are so united in our experience as Queer South Asians,” Almaarii wrote.
Since its inception, Almaarii has collaborated with various queer projects and collectives. In February, they joined forces with Forbidden Verses with the help of queer artists who designed thirteen postcards for a DOSTCARD Postcard Exchange.
This helped to send INR 30 (USD 0.40) from each set of postcards to the Trans Community Kitchen to provide ration for working-class cisgender women, trans women, and people from the Kothi community in Tamil Nadu.
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Almaarii did a webinar on Storytelling for Social Change with Omprakash in December 2020. And this year in April, Zinebaad and Almaarii planned a workshop on Zoom for those who wished to explore ‘space’ that is both your closet or even, not your closet.
It was for anyone who needed a starting block made for and by queer people to “explore, to understand, to create with”. Attendees were offered an exciting chance to engage in exercises and also learn to make a basic zine!
Earlier this year in January, Almaarii’s administrator, Jo, decided to announce a newsletter that was launched in April wherein two almaaris are shared once a month. To contribute to Almaarii – this project wants the stories, descriptions of their closets and voices of queer folx.
Queer folx don’t have to be writers to contribute their story to the project- just get in touch with Almaarii on Instagram, then they will instruct you about how you can submit the description of your closet to the initiative.
Both queer and allied illustrators can contact Almaarii in their inbox or via email to illustrate their own closets (if they are queer). In the case of allied illustrators, they can create visuals of the almaariis of queer persons.
Almaarii is also attempting to translate all the closets they are collecting into a multitude of different languages to make them more accessible to those who are comfortable with regional languages. You may sign up to be a translator in any language or to help check the translations they receive.
The Ticket Fairy spoke to Jo about Almaarii, their favourite part about it, some challenges they faced while working on the project, and more!
TF Word: Tell us how you came up with the concept of this project?
Media organisations and safe spaces built for the queer community online and offline, queer or not queer, have sections of ‘coming out stories’ to talk about the experience of revealing one’s non-normative identity to a society that has learnt to be violent towards any form of ‘deviance’.
These are stories which I have known as an editor, contributor, and consumer of such spaces; they are some of the most popular (or maybe just necessary) stories when it comes to audience reach and readability- human stories that prove to us that we are not the only queer person in the world, that validate our struggle for acceptance.
But what happens when the whole experience of coming out of a closet is based on and comes from a culture that has had the privilege of language to back the experience with words to suit those in the culture? A feeling so natural, but so alien to explain that the only way to explain it is to take the words they see and make them their own?
I was trying to make sense of my own coming out story, trying to understand when, how, and why I came out. I was brought up outside India, in a conservative setting where I had had no chance to explore any part of my dormant queerness.
While my reflections began with my own story, within the community too, there were already conversations about queerness and language. There were understandings of how coming out in the South Asian scenario is not the same as coming out in the ‘western world’ or how it is shown on TV. My coming out process, incidentally, was always based on me just not denying my queerness to those I needed to ‘come out’ to.
I sat and thought about how we talk about closets as these things that exist as metaphors in our life, and my thoughts eventually led to the word ‘closet’ itself. Why were we calling these things closets, if I would call my closet a cupboard? The wooden boxes holding my clothes in my house are referred to as wardrobes, and my grandparents always called their iron and aluminium cloth-boxes alamari in Malayalam.
If we did not even have the same name for the thing we were supposedly ‘trapped’ in, what would we call all of us coming out of that ‘trap’? That is where exploring this for each person I knew, and the larger community was born.
TF Word: Almaarii shares the descriptions of closets, visuals, experiences, and stories of over 100 queer people. Did you envision it to get so big?
No, but one thing is for sure, not one almaarii looks, feels, sounds like another. The beauty of the collaborative process that Almaarii is, stems from the imaginative power these Almaariis have, and how illustrating them can move them out of the metaphorical sense to see them as real places that can be explored.
Experiencing them in this way is an opportunity to separate them from what has been understood as a universal experience to something belonging to only one person- a fingerprint. Digitally, one could zoom into an Almaarii to find posters of movies that took a person through sleepless nights, pieces of a puzzle that was carefully arranged together, glitter from clothes one was beaten up for owning.
An Almaarii could tell you new things about someone every time you look at it, every time you read it.
TF Word: What are some challenges you faced while working on this project?
I am a full-time Ph.D. candidate, and I work alongside doing Almaarii. Managing the time to do something I am so passionate about on my own has been the biggest challenge. But it gets easier because every single person I have worked with has made it worth it for me.
TF Word: What is your favorite part about Almaarii?
All the new people I get to meet, and the new relationships they get to have when they create something for each other. Almaarii has been able to redefine what ‘allyship’ means to the community.
TF Word: How do you feel about Almaarii now in contrast to its initial days?
I want to find more ways to explore this space beyond illustrative work, and while words and visuals are beautiful ways, maybe what I should really be collecting is the initial notes of writing an Almaarii that someone would have jotted down- not the edited version that reaches me. The edited version is still a performance for the ‘editor’, Jo, the ‘collector’ of these Almaariis.
I often reflect on how I am seen as this person who sends emails, sets the rules and tones while also constantly negotiating on not setting rules. This is something I think about a lot.
TF Word: Almaarii has teamed up with other projects in the past. What was your experience?
Always a wonderful one.
TF Word: Share with us something that most people don’t know about Almaarii?
Nothing, everyone who works with and knows almaarii knows everything about the project in its entirety.
Queer folx may submit descriptions/Narratives of your closet/Almaarii – HERE
If you’re an illustrator, fill this form
Information has been sourced from Almaarii’s Instagram page.