Intolerant cruelty

Khaled Diab

Five years after the tide turned against homosexuals in Egypt with the infamous Queen Boat trial, a book delving into the underground and taboo world occupied by gays and lesbians in the Middle East has just been published.


May 2006

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the infamous Queen Boat affair in which dozens of homosexual men were rounded up during a raid on a floating Cairo nightclub popular with gays. Inspired by these events Unspeakable love: gay and lesbian life in the Middle East delves into the underground, taboo-ridden world occupied by gays and lesbians in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.


Brian Whitaker, veteran Middle East correspondent at the liberal UK daily The Guardian, also examines the pervasive culture of denial surrounding the issue, the sometimes grave consequences of not living the lie and the need to view homosexuality in a wider socio-economic and political context.


Although private attitudes can be quite permissive, homosexuality is rarely broached in the public domain. “In the Middle East, homosexuality is possibly the most sensitive and controversial topic anyone can write about (at least if you’re not attacking it), so the thought of doing a whole book on it was pretty scary at first,” Whitaker told me. “It would [have been] better if the book [had come] from an Arab writer but there wasn't much prospect of that. If it was going to be left to a foreigner to say these uncomfortable things I thought I was at least a foreigner with a reasonable chance of being listened to.”


Queen boats and sinking ships

The Queen Boat trial and subsequent crackdown came as a shock to many open-minded Egyptians, particularly as there is no law specifically criminalising homosexuality in Egypt. But too many have allowed themselves to be morally bullied into silence.


Around the time of the Queen Boat trial, for instance, the Egyptian pound’s ‘controlled floatation’ was threatening to spin out of control, foreign reserves were strained, the stock exchange was in the doldrums, and joblessness was high.


The government is also desperate to beat the Islamists at their own game. “To counter this ascending [Islamist] power, the state resorts to sensational prosecutions, in which the regime steps in to protect Islam from ‘evil apostates’,” argues Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.


A peek inside the closet

According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, of the 81 countries outlawing same-sex acts, 36 belong to the Arab League and/or the Islamic Conference Organisation. That also means that the problem is not exclusively a Muslim/Arab one, as 45 countries from other parts of the world also outlaw homosexuality.


Whitaker’s book focuses mainly on three very different countries – Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – to highlight the diversity and complexity of the situation. Egypt does not outlaw homosexuality, but is in the throes of a crackdown. Lebanon does outlaw it, but a more tolerant counterculture is emerging. Saudi Arabia threatens homosexuals with the death penalty, yet has a vibrant underground gay scene.


The book provides insight into the lives of ordinary gays and lesbians in Arab countries and Iran. Ali, a Lebanese teenager, fled his family home after he had been hit with a chair so hard it broke, confined to the house for five days, locked in the boot of a car, and threatened with a gun for wearing his sister’s clothes. “A point made repeatedly by young gay Arabs in interviews was that parental ignorance is a large part of the problem,” the book explains.


Gaith, a Syrian fashion designer who fled his family to Beirut, was sent to countless therapists in a bid to ‘cure’ him of his condition. “I went to at least 25 different therapists and they were all really, really bad. Really bad,” he recalled. “They did all sorts of medical tests, like hormones and things, and they always made you masturbate into this little container.”


Impossible love

Laila, an Egyptian lesbian, had a gentler family experience. Her mother once asked her if she “really liked women”, and seemed relatively unperturbed by her daughter’s expressed preference. Laila, herself, has two possible explanations for the generally more relaxed attitude towards lesbians: girls are less important to an Arab family’s social standing and some more cynical parents will secretly be relieved that their daughter’s predilection for her own sex will ensure she doesn’t lose her ‘virginity’ before reaching a marriageable age.


“Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet,” writes Iman al-Ghafari, a Syrian university professor, in an essay entitled Is there a lesbian identity in the Arab culture?


Reading the painful experiences of all these Arab gays and lesbians I was left wishing that Whitaker had included a positive ‘coming out’ to provide some relief and lessen the sense of despair.


Under the shadow of the gallows

From a legal point of view, Saudi Arabia and Iran – where executions of homosexuals actually occur – are probably the most sexually repressive countries in the Middle East. Iran is particularly willing to follow the letter of the law and has executed numerous men in recent years, including two probable minors in the summer of 2005.


But Saudi homosexuals do not seem to lose much sleep over the prospect of the death penalty. “Oh come on, please, that is so exaggerated,” one gay Saudi, rolling his eyes, told OutUK, a gay magazine. “I mean, it’s well known there are several members of the royal family who are gay. No one’s chopping their heads off.”


In fact, scratch beneath the surface in Saudi, and a thriving gay party scene in private homes emerges. “In Saudi Arabia, denial is almost an institution,” Whitaker’s book asserts. “It suits the authorities to deny that homosexual activity exists in the kingdom to any significant extent, and it suits gay Saudis… to assist that denial by keeping a low profile.”


The book warns against the dangers of this “social dualism”, which manifests itself as a “living lie where pretence and hypocrisy take over”.


In strictly segregated Saudi society, in many ways, it is actually easier to be gay than heterosexual. It is an Arab norm for straight men and women to walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm down the street as a sign of good friendship, and hugging and kissing an old friend of the same gender on the cheek is a normal way of expressing affection. Additionally, in Saudi, there are infinitely more opportunities to meet people of your own sex and same-sex social gatherings tend to go unnoticed.


Foreign contagion

Large segments of the Arabic-language media – following the lead of conservative religious voices – often portray homosexuality, if they do at all, as a repulsive import from a decadent and overly permissive Western culture.


“Depicting homosexuality as ‘something that foreigners do’ is a familiar practice in cultures where it is considered morally or socially unacceptable,” the book observes.

For instance, the celebrated 19th century British diplomat and orientalist Richard Burton came up, in 1885, with what he termed a ‘Sotadic Zone’ where, he claimed, homosexuality was more prevalent than in other parts of the world. The globe’s homo-erogenous zone supposedly covered most of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, stretching all the way to the Punjab and Kashmir.


As with other great orientalist thinkers, many of Burton’s ideas reflected hang-ups closer to home. Despite the imperial haughtiness of his theory, he seemed to be trying to change English homophobia by showing that homosexuality was considered natural in many parts of the world.


However, little changed and, a decade later, Victorian England’s greatest playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde, was forced to mount his famous defence of the ‘love that dares not speak its name’. In front of a packed courthouse, he described the love between an older and younger man as a “deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is beautiful, it is fine... There is nothing unnatural about it.”


Despite his eloquence, he could not convince the court to accept his homosexuality and he was imprisoned for two years with hard labour. It took British society until 1967 before it partially decriminalised homosexual acts in 1967.


People who dismiss homosexuality as little more than an import have obviously not read much classical Arabic or Muslim poetry or literature. Around 1,200 years before the ‘summer of 1968’ sexual revolution, Abu Nawas – the court laureate of the celebrated caliph, Harun al-Rashid – penned hundreds of homoerotic poems.


In fact, Abu Nawas’s homoerotic (muthakkirat) and wine (khamariyyat) poetry was, according to academic sources, in free circulation across the Arab world until the early 20th century when the first censored edition of his verse was published in Cairo in 1932.


History repeating

The book puts this ‘blame the foreigner syndrome’ down to reverse orientalism: “Today, Arab portrayals of homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon can be attributed, at least in part, to a reversal of old-fashioned western orientalism.”


However, the underlying causes are very different. Whereas 18th and 19th century western orientalism, as Edward Said maintained in his seminal work on the subject, was an intellectual tool that was often, but not exclusively, used to build a better understanding of Europe’s new subject races, while demonising and dehumanising them sufficiently to justify their subjugation.


In my opinion, contemporary reverse orientalism is born out of a Muslim need to resist and withstand western scientific, cultural and economic dominance, as well as military and political hegemony. Some Muslims do this by constructing a false utopian ideal of a moral and cultural purity – which never existed – that will resuscitate Arab and Muslim glory. This bears a striking resemblance to the myth of a ‘pure’ and glorious Christendom that propelled the reconquista of Spain and Portugal, and the subsequent effacing of the multicultural character of Andalusia in the early modern period.


The modern Muslim awe and fear of the West has parallels with the medieval European view of Islam. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the ‘father of modern medicine’ – and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) – whose work on Aristotle reintroduced the Greek philosopher to Europe – occupied a special place in the Inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy as ‘virtuous heathens’. Meanwhile, the prophet Mohamed and his cousin and son-in-law Ali dwelt, near Satan, in the eighth of the nine circles of hell. This highlights the respect and envy Europe, on the cusp of its Islamic-fuelled renaissance, held for Muslim science and technology, and the contempt it held for the religion itself.


The power of dogma

One major barrier to a broader acceptance of homosexuality is dogma. Whitaker’s book tackles the theological arguments in detail. He explores the thorny issue of whether Islam actually forbids gay love or whether social attitudes are the problem.


Sunni and shi’ite Islam’s five main mathaheb (schools of law) have widely divergent opinions on the legal treatment of homosexual acts. In addition, most Muslim countries do not rely exclusively on Islamic jurisprudence but draw on numerous secular sources in their body of law. More liberal Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt base much of their legal system on French law and the Belgian constitution served as a model for several Arab states. One negative example is the British introduction of anti-sodomy laws in what is now Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.


Like some of their Christian and Jewish counterparts, certain Muslim scholars tend to focus on certain types of sexual acts, and not sexual orientation per se, frowning upon ‘sodomy’, since they regard it as a waste of sexual energy because it cannot end in procreation. Nevertheless, Islam has, since its inception, recognised the recreational side of sex. For instance, a woman is allowed to seek a divorce from her husband, if he does not satisfy her sexually. And medieval Muslim sex manuals described an array of inventive positions.


Many Islamic scholars who claim that the Quran forbids homosexuality refer to the story of the prophet Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, ‘sodomy’ – or ‘Lutiya’, as we call it in Arabic – is a huge misnomer, since God, according to the Old Testament, is angry at Sodom’s “pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness”. Likewise, the Quran does not spell out the nature of the crime committed by Lot’s people, save for their corruption and the rejection of the prophet God sent to them.


Even more dubiously, some scholars point to a Hadith (saying of the prophet) of questionable authenticity that men should not imitate women and vice-versa.


One foot out of the closet

‘Coming out’ is only a partial experience for many Arab gays. One of the cases in the book, Hassan, leads a dual life as good son and gay crusader (or should one say mujahed?). He has kept his homosexuality secret from his wealthy Palestinian family in America for fear of hurting them. He is an active member of Al Fatiha, an organisation for gay and lesbian Muslims. Instead of coming out to his family, the gay campaigner plans to marry a Muslim lesbian from a respectable family when he hits 30.


To me, Hassan’s predicament represented one of the biggest barriers to reform in the Arab world. Even though he lives in a society which – at least legally – tolerates his sexuality, he still keeps one foot in the closet. Although close family ties are important to maintain, I believe that they cannot and should not be allowed to take precedence over everything else. “The sense of duty that Arabs in general feel towards other members of their family is extremely powerful. Gay or lesbian Arabs are no exception to this and often they are willing to put family loyalties before their own sexuality,” the book describes.


But, in my reckoning, family loyalties should cut both ways: a family has a duty to accept its members for who they are. If it can’t, then the individual has a right to distance him or herself from the family unit for everyone’s mutual happiness. But this is anathema to most Arabs – even rebels often leave their rebellion outside the front door. But change, like charity, begins at home. If one dares not try to convince one’s nearest and dearest to accept what she or he is, how can people hope to change the views of the rest of society?


The broader picture

Whitaker cautions against reading his book too narrowly. He regards the question of Arab attitudes towards homosexuality as one that is intimately connected to a plethora of socio-economic and political issues.


“[Unspeakable love] is not primarily a book about sex,” he told me. “It discusses society, culture, religion, politics, reform and east-west conflicts.”


He, however, holds back – intentionally – from prescribing any concrete action. “The Americans have been busy prescribing agendas for change and look where that got them. It’s a matter for Arabs themselves to decide, according to local conditions.”


One potential model for change is the nascent gay lib movement in Lebanon. Helem (Dream), the Lebanese gay rights group, has aligned itself with other NGOs and reform-minded Lebanese to push for the modernisation of the penal code.


A culture of change

The cultural sector also has an important role to play in bringing the subject out of the closet, and certain trailblazers are already breaking the taboo and challenging prevailing social attitudes. Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian dentist-cum-author who has helped to give the popular Arab novel back its teeth, is one such controversial figure. One of the pivotal characters in his best-selling novel, Umaret Yaqubian (The Yacoubian Building), is a newspaper editor who is gay, Hatem Rashid.


Rashid is as flawed as the other characters in this grim and dour Dostoyevskyesque epic, and al-Aswany does make a couple of questionable sweeping generalisations about gays, but the refined, intelligent and capable journalist is treated sympathetically and portrayed as a normal human being.


“I believe homosexuals in Egypt were always tolerated – probably not in the same way as in the west – but now I think this has changed,” Aswany noted in an interview with The Guardian. “I tried to portray the gay character as a human being, not as a particular case. That is something new.”


A big-budget film adaptation of The Yacoubian Building premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is due for general release soon.


At the end of the day, gay pride cannot be separated from the general struggle for human dignity. Ignorant attitudes are likely to prevail as long as poor education and illiteracy are still fairly rampant. Recognition of homosexuality in the Arab world is unlikely to come before a general acceptance of sexuality. In societies where the mainstream is sidelined by the system, respect of minorities is hardly likely to thrive.




ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.