Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker

UL2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.) Whitaker was the Middle East Editor for the Guardian from 2000 to 2007. His account is easy to read, but was also criticised by some authors as reproducing anti-Arab stereotypes.

What inspired him to write this book was the now incident in 2001 when Egyptian police raided a boat on the Nile River and arrested many men. (The regime used sensational trials to divert public attention from the worsening state of the economy and similar issues. ) Both the arrest and the ensuing trials caused many lives to be ruined and attracted worldwide attention. Shortly afterwards, Whitaker met two of the men who had been closely involved in the case and they asked him to write this book.

One expert reviewed asked: What about the thousands of men who marry and have sex with men on the side? The gay prostitutes on the corniches of Beirut, Aqaba, Manama, and Alexandria? Gender separation and sexism? The adopting of gender roles in the gay community? Class issues? Racial and Sunni/Shia schisms? The book says it’s about “Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East”, when really it only deals with politics, the media, and some insights on religion. Except for a discussion of family life, the book hardly touches on everyday gay life, at least for the majority of the people in the Middle East. When you finish the book, a lot seems to be missing.

There are twenty-two countries in the Arab League (if we include) Palestine, and to try to give a country-by-country picture would be both impractical and repetitive. Instead, I wanted to highlight the issues that are faced throughout the region, to a greater or lesser degree, by Arabs whose sexuality does not fit the public concepts of ‘normal’. Most of the face-to-face research was done in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries that provide interesting contrasts. This was supplemented by a variety of other sources including news reports, correspondence by email, articles in magazines and academic journals, discussions published on websites, plus a review of the way homosexuality is treated in the Arabic media, in novels and in films.

People who dismiss homosexuality as little more than an import have not read much classical Arabic or Muslim poetry or literature. Some 1,200 years before the summer of 1968 Abu Nawas — court laureate of the celebrated Caliph Harun Al-Rashid — penned hundreds of homoerotic poems. As scholars have noted, Abu Nawas’s homoerotic (mudhakkarat ) poetry was long accessible across the Arab world and it was not before 1932 that the first expurgated edition of his verse was printed in Cairo.

A 17th century French visitor to the Middle East went so far as to claim that Muslims were bisexual by nature and in 1800, a European traveller to Egypt wrote: “The inconceivable inclination which has dishonoured the Greeks and Persians of antiquity constitutes the delight, or, more properly speaking the infamy of the Egyptians… the contagion has seized the poor as well as the rich.”

People whose sexuality does not fit the norm have no legal rights; they are condemned to a life of secrecy, fearing exposure and sometimes blackmail; many are forced into unwanted marriages for the sake of their family’s reputation; there is no redress if they are discriminated against; and agencies providing advice on sexuality and related health matters are virtually non-existent…. Although it is generally accepted in many parts of the world that sexual orientation is neither a conscious choice nor anything that can be changed voluntarily, this idea has not yet taken hold in Arab countries ­with the result that homosexuality tends to be viewed either as wilfully perverse behaviour or as a symptom of mental illness, and dealt with accordingly.

An unintended side effect of failed reparative therapy: Futile as this may be in terms of reorien­tating the client, it is not necessarily a total waste of money: Billy cited several cases where failed therapy had helped to con­vince parents that their son would not change, and thus per­suade them to accept his sexuality.

For men: Parental pressures of this kind, although extremely common, can vary in intensity from one family to another and are not universal. ‘It depends on how you manage your career. There is less pressure to get married if you are focused on a career. If you’re not doing much and seem to be messing about, parents will start talking about marriage.’

But one: said several of his gay friends had gone on to marry or were planning to do so — not because of family pres­sures but because they feared ‘being alone’ as they grew older.

For another: While he continues with his studies he is under no pres­sure to marry, but he knows the time will come and is already working on a compromise solution, as he calls it. When he reaches the age of thirty he will get married — to a lesbian from a respectable Muslim family. He is not sure if they will have same-sex partners outside the marriage but he hopes they will have children and that, to outward appearances at least, they too will be a respectable family.

There are some horrendous police behaviours: One was forced to stand in sewage water up to his neck, his head covered by a sack filled with faeces, and then he was thrown into a dark cell infested with insects and other creatures he could feel but not see … During one interrogation, police stripped him and forced him to sit on a Coke bottle.”. Another ‘They put him in a pit. It was the fast of Ramadan, and they decided to make him fast the whole month but without any break at night. They denied him food and water until he died in that hole.In comparison with today, those were the good times for gay Iraqis. In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Iraq was engulfed in a new kind of tyranny as militias and vigilante groups roamed the streets, enforcing their own rules and impos­ing mob justice on those whose behaviour they disapproved of.

Lesbians tend to fare better because of: two reasons for a more relaxed attitude towards lesbian daughters. One results from a heavily male-orientated society in which the hopes of traditional Arab fami­lies are pinned on their male offspring. Baby girls are not par­ticularly welcomed and many parents continue having children until they produce a son. Boys therefore come under greater pressure than girls to live up to parental aspirations. The other factor is that lesbian inclinations remove some of a family’s usual worries as their daughter passes through her teens and early twenties. The main behavioural requirement placed on a young woman during this dangerous period is that she should not ‘dishonour’ the family by losing her virginity or getting pregnant before marriage. A daughter’s preference for women at least reassures the family that she won’t bring shame on them by getting into trouble with men.

Countries that have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention have a legal duty to offer protection to anyone with ‘a well‑founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and it is possible to interpret this as including those who are persecuted, or fear persecution, because of their sexual orientation. But Stonewall cautions: ‘The vast majority of applications for asylum are refused. This is not an easy route …”

In the Beirut office of Helem there’s a poster showing images of war with a message that says: ‘I don’t believe in a country where it’s more acceptable to see two men holding guns than two men holding hands.’ Lebanon has always had more than its share of men holding guns.

Some establish­ments in the Beirut have become popular with a gay clientele, but not all welcome this patronage, fearing it will drive more con­ventional customers away. One of these was Dunkin’ Donuts. Exactly why gay men found it so attractive is a bit of a mystery, since most of those who preen themselves at its tables would not dream of eating a doughnut for fear of the damage it might do to their waistline.

An employee at Dunkin’ Donuts who refused to give her name told a rather different story to the Daily Star. Gay cus­tomers’ behaviour went far beyond local social norms, she said. `In several instances, these customers displayed homosexual affection. They held hands, hugged and sometimes even kissed while they were on the premises. Personally, I’m not offended by such demeanour. But for Lebanese social norms, their behav­iour was not acceptable to other customers, who threatened to call the police.’ She added that gay customers still had a high probability of getting served if they behaved well, but if they wanted to fight for the ‘freedom to come out of the closet, then Dunkin’ Donuts was not the place to do it.`

He points out that most of the places cited by the New York Times exist for Beirut’s moneyed elite and warns that talk of Lebanon’s toler­ance and gay-friendliness can be deceptive.

One Arab country long regarded as an exotic, bohemian ­even licentious— destination for foreigners is Morocco. Paul Bowles, Francis Bacon, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Joe Orton are just a few of gay writers and artists whose names are associated with the country. Even before that, Morocco was a place where wayward sons of the English gentry — like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited — could escape, perhaps to indulge their illicit pleasures but also to be quietly forgotten by their scandalised families.

Today, stroll around the Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, or sit in one of the tourist restaurants overlooking the square, and the same-sex couples are hard to miss, though unlike the wealthy Sebastian these have mostly arrived on budget airlines. While their pink pounds and pink euros may be eagerly accepted in the soukhs, Morocco’s gay reputation is not one that the country rel­ishes particularly nor, for that matter, deserves. Homosexuality is still a crime, with penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment plus a fine for ‘lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex. For visiting foreigners the risk of arrest may be small, but it’s a different story for Moroccans themselves. Young gay Moroccans who consort with foreign­ers are automatically assumed to be prostitutes.

Is the outrage of the likes of Amnesty International some sort of islamophobia? Although much justifiable anger is directed by Western gay organisations at the Saudi law prescribing execution for sodomy, gay men in the kingdom seem to view execution as an extremely remote possibility. Two multiple executions have been reported in recent years but these may have been exceptional. Four gay Saudis interviewed by Out UK all ‘rolled their eyes and laughed’ when asked about executions. One said: Oh come on, please, that is so exaggerated. Americans love those kind of dramatic stories, but they are mostly lore. I mean, it’s well known there are several members of the royal family who are gay. No one’s chopping their heads off.

There is no one Islamic law. Sodomy is not among the hadd crimes specified in the Qur’an, and so the penalties assigned for it by the various schools of Islamic law are the result of human (and therefore fallible) processes of deduction.

In the most radical challenge to traditionalist views pub­lished so far, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle asserts that the issue of homosexuality is not explicitly addressed anywhere in the Qur’an and, furthermore, that there is no reliable evidence of the Prophet ever having punished people for same-sex acts. Furthermore that hadith that address the issue of punishing men for having anal sex are not linked to any specific case or event in the Prophet’s life. This is in marked contrast to the hadith that that preserve the names of the men and women involved’.

Some jurists have also based their arguments for stoning to death on God’s punishment of ‘the people of Lut’ [the Biblical Lot, of Sodom and Gomorrah fame] when stones rained down upon them from heaven.

One possibility is that Lot uttered the words in response to the townsfolk’s threat to his guests — in which case the context, as in the biblical version, is an attempt at non-consensual sex that bears little relevance to homosexuality as normally practised. Another possibility is that the remarks refer to previous events that we know nothing about. One suggestion, for example, is that the men of the town were in the habit of sexually assaulting the victims of their rob­beries but, again, that is speculation.’ Further complicating the picture, while Suras 7 and 27 talk generally about lust for men ‘instead of women’, Sura 26 talks more specifically about men forsaking their wives for other men — in which case the important issue would be adultery, regardless of the gender of the sexual partners. For all these reasons, it is unwise to claim that the verses condemn homosexuality in the form that it is usually known today. It is also difficult to imagine that the phrase ‘lewdness such as no creature did before’ (Sura 29) really means the people of Lot were the first ever to engage in same-sex acts — though there are many who interpret it that way: Before the people of Sodom, never did this evil even enter the mind of mankind, let alone practising it. The Umayyad Khalifah Abdul Malik said that if this episode of the homo­sexuals was not mentioned in the Qur’an, he would not have conceded the reality of this crime since it was unthinkable that man will descend to such a degenerate level and debase himself in a type of act which is not indulged in by even the overwhelming majority of lowly beasts. (Not much knowledge of animal sexuality there, then.)

Then there’s a hint of paedophilia: Their wickedness had attained the level where the mere sight of a handsome young man made them so agitated that they pounced upon him as famished people would fall on food …

Neither conservative Christians not conservative Muslims seem have realised that: Those who favour legalistic interpretations also tend to focus on the bits that suit their case while ignoring others. In the Biblical and Quir’anic versions of the story, Lot/Lut offers his daugh­ters to the mob — a shocking way to behave by modern standards, but nobody treats it as a general licence to do such things today. In the book of Genesis, a curious but rarely-mentioned sexual episode follows the destruction of Sodom. The right­eous Lot goes to live in a cave with his two daughters but he has no wife and no male heir. The daughters decide to resolve this problem by getting their father drunk then having sex with him. This happens on two consecutive nights and in due course both daughters bear him a son. It is interesting that those who so readily interpret the earlier part of Lot’s story as God’s condemnation of homosexuality seem less eager to interpret is denouement as signalling divine approval for incest while under the influence of drink.

There’s a wider context: Despite the intolerance often found in Muslim societies today, Kugle observes that the Qur’an ‘positively assesses natural diversity in creation and in human societies’. In contrast to the biblical story of Babel, where God scatters the people- and makes them speak mutually incomprehensible languages as a punishment, the Qur’an welcomes their differences:

We created you different tribes and nations so that you may come to know one another and acknowledge that the most honourable among you are those that stay the most con­scious of Allah.

From among Allah’s signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the difference of your tongues and the varia­tion of your colours.

To say that ‘Islam’ prescribes ‘death for homo­sexuals’ is simplistic and misleading, even though religious con­servatives and Western gay rights campaigners (each for their own reasons) like to claim that it does. This sort of propagandising is particularly unhelpful to those gay and lesbian Muslims who are struggling to reconcile their sexuality with their religion. The implication is that anyone who rejects the supposedly ‘Islamic’ penalties must reject Islam as a whole — which is not necessarily so.

In any case, there were far more prosecutions in 1950s Britain than in the current Arab world.

Homosexu­ality is ‘the most heinous” sin in Islam and ‘one of the most abominable a sin so ‘enormous in intensity and gravity’ that it must be punished both in this life and the next. What, more heinous that murder or rape?

Apparently so, according to as moderate: Since marriage ‘is a means for the survival of humankind’,” homosexuality is ‘a fierce attack on progeny and pregnancy, which increases the human race’.”‘ It is also described as a ‘crime’ against the rights of women (presumably by depriving them of the opportunity to become pregnant). `The same applies equally to the case of lesbianism.

So: The Muslim needs to take precautions against these devi­ants and not to give them any opportunity to mix with and corrupt their children. Furthermore, they are neither fit to establish masajid [mosques] and frequent them, nor are they fit to lead those who frequent the masjid whomever they may be. More importantly for them is to seek a cure for themselves from their own illness.

Something else that affects about the same percentage of people as homosexuality: Satan eats and drinks with his left hand, the sheikh says, and people who don’t eat and drink with their right hand are there­fore emulating Satan.

But there’s a different view, which could also be extended to homosexuality: A left-handed person does not choose to make his right hand the weaker hand. This is something that he is created with and cannot change, just like the colour of his eyes or his hair.

Masturbation is also condemned because it causes problems for the: digestive system, inflammation of the testicles, damage to the spine (`the place from which sperm originates’), and ‘trem­bling and instability in some parts of the body like the feet. In addition, they say, there is a weakening of the ‘cerebral glands’ leading to decreased intellect and even ‘mental disorders and insanity. Furthermore, ‘due to constant ejaculation, the sperm no more remains thick and dense as it normally occurs in males. This results in sperm which is not ‘mighty enough’ to make a woman pregnant or produces children who are ‘more prone to disease and illness.

Asked to give a ruling on oral sex, Yusuf al- Qaradawi begins by describing it as a disgusting Western practice, result­ing from Westerners’ habit of ‘stripping naked during sexual intercourse’.

On Cross-dressing: In a much-quoted hadith, the Prophet is said to have cursed men who imitate women and women who imitate men. ‘Aspects of such imitation include the manner of speaking, walking, dressing, moving, and so on,’ according to IslamOnline. This not only appears to rule out cross-dressing but also camp mannerisms by gay men and butch mannerisms by lesbians. Islamic scholars often extend the rule further to include male use of ‘feminine’ adornments such as neck-chains, bracelets and earrings.” Segregation of the sexes, as practised to varying degrees in Muslim societies, is one way of prevent­ing illicit sexual contacts, and the prohibition of cross-dressing should perhaps be viewed in that context: a man who disguises as a woman, or vice versa, is presumed to be up to mischief.

In the absence of proper information about homosexuality in the Arab media, not only the public but journalists them­selves remain seriously ill-informed. One effect of this is that on the rare occasions when the subject crops up journalists are in no position to make sensible judgements and may allow ludicrous statements to pass unchallenged, thus perpetuating the cycle of misinformation.

Tales of homosexuality in high places were a significant factor in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and may help to explain the tough approach taken by the Islamic regime that replaced the Shah.

Soon after coming to power in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini established the death penalty for homosexuality. In February and March 1979 there were sixteen executions for crimes related to sexual violations …”

Although homosexuality and homoeroticism abound in classical Arabic literature,” they are generally avoided in modern fiction.

Muslim scholars tend to focus on specific types of sexual act, not sexual orientation per se, frowning upon sodomy as a waste of sexual energy, according to Whitaker’s discussion. Yet Islam has, since its inception, recognised the recreational side of sex. According to some traditions women, as much as men, are allowed to seek a divorce if their spouse does not satisfy them sexually and mediaeval Muslim sex manuals describe an array of inventive positions.

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.

UL Quotations:

 “It discusses society, culture, religion, politics, reform and East-West conflicts.” He intentionally holds back 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.”

“The threats directed against Ali by his brother, and the accusation that he was besmirching the family’s name, reflect a concept of “honor” that is found in those parts of the Middle East where old-fashioned social values still prevail. Preserving the family honor requires brothers to kill an unmarried sister if she becomes pregnant (even if—as has happened in some cases—her pregnancy is the result of being raped by one of her own family).”

“Of course, I had known that I was gay for a long time but I never allowed myself even to think about it,” he says. In his final year at college, he developed a crush on one of his male teachers. “I felt this thing for him that I never knew I could feel. I used to see him and almost pass out.

“One day, I was at his place for a party and I got drunk. My teacher said he had a problem with his back and I offered him a massage. We went into the bedroom. I was massaging him and suddenly I felt so happy. I turned his face towards my face and kissed him. He was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not gay.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’

“It was the first time I had actually said that I was gay. After that, I couldn’t see anybody or speak for almost a week. I just went to my room and stayed there; I stopped going to school; I stopped eating. I was so upset at myself and I was going, ‘No, I’m not gay, I’m not gay.'”

“I went to this psychiatrist and, before I saw him, I was stupid enough to fill in a form about who I was, with my family’s phone number. [The doctor] was very rude and we almost had a fight. He said: ‘You’re the garbage of the country, you shouldn’t be alive and if you want to live, don’t live here. Just find a visa and leave Syria and don’t ever come back.’

“Before I reached home, he had called my mum, and my mum freaked out. When I arrived home there were all these people in the house. My mum was crying, my sister was crying – I thought somebody had died or something. They put me in the middle and everybody was judging me. I said to them, ‘You have to respect who I am; this was not something I chose,’ but it was a hopeless case.

“The bad part was that my mum wanted me to leave the college. I said, ‘No, I’ll do whatever you want.’ After that, she started taking me to therapists. I went to at least 25 and they were all really, really bad.”

“I went to at least 25 different therapists and they were all really, 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.”

“I’m not sure you’re gay, but if I find out one day that you are gay, you’re dead. It’s not good for our family and our name.”

“What people know of it, if they know anything, is that it’s like some sort of mental illness. This is the educated part of society – doctors, teachers, engineers, technocrats. Those from a lesser educational background deal with it differently. They think their son has been seduced or come under bad influences. Many of them get absolutely furious and kick him out until he changes his behaviour.”

“If it wasn’t for the internet, I wouldn’t have come to accept my sexuality.”

“Of course, my family can see that I’m not macho like my younger brother. They know that I’m sensitive and I don’t like sport. They accept all that, but I cannot tell them that I’m gay. If I did, my sisters would never be able to marry, because we would not be a respectable family any more.”

“My mother found out when I was fairly young – 16 or 17 – that I was interested in women and [she] wasn’t happy about it.” – bundled off to see a psychiatrist who “suggested all manner of ridiculous things – shock therapy and so on”.

“I re-closeted myself and started going out with a guy. I’m 26 years old now and I shouldn’t have to be doing this, but it’s just a matter of convenience. My mum doesn’t mind me having gay male friends, but she doesn’t like me being with women.”

“I started agreeing with the psychiatrist and saying, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ Soon he was saying, ‘I think you’re doing better.’ He gave me some medicine that I never took. So everybody was fine with it after a while, because the doctor said I was doing OK.”

“My mum is in denial. She keeps asking when I am going to get married – ‘When can I hold your children?’ In Syria, this is the way people think. Your only mission in life is to grow up and start a family. There are no real dreams. The only Arab dream is having more families.”

“I don’t believe in a country where it’s more acceptable to see two men holding guns than two men holding hands.”

“There is an important distinction to be drawn between tolerance of homosexuality and tolerance of sex tourism.”

“Sexual rights are not only a basic element of human rights but should have an integral part in moves towards Arab reform …”

“Denial is the first line of defence against a problem and also the easiest, since it requires no action. In Saudi Arabia, denial is almost an institution … it suits the authorities to deny that homosexual activity exists in the kingdom to any significant extent, and it suits gay Saudis (who well understand how the rules work) to assist that denial by keeping a low profile. If it reaches a stage where denial is no longer, possible, however, the authorities are obliged to respond. The choice then is between tolerance and oppression …”

“A further difficulty for Palestinians is that in the highly-charged atmosphere of the conflict with Israel, their sexuality tends to become caught up in politics…This generalized view equating homosexuality with treachery makes it extremely dangerous for Palestinians to return home after fleeing to Israel.

“It is worth recalling that Britain, over several centuries, waged a war against homosexuality – in the name of religion, social order, decency, etc. – that certainly equalled, and in its scale probably outstripped, anything that happens in Arab countries today.”

“The idea of a licentious West that many Arabs hold today closely mirrors the view that Europeans had of the Middle East a couple of centuries or more ago.”

News media about same-sex marriage and gay clergy in the West tend to be reported factually and straightforwardly by the Arab media, often with quotes from opposing sides. Besides the stories dealing specifically with these topics, there were many others during the American presidential campaign of 2004 that mentioned gay rights as an election issue. The relatively calm tone of these reports in comparison with the more hysterical stories about local homosexuality may be partly explained by their reliance on Western news agencies. As with the nineteenth-century writings of Richard Burton, however, they can be read in different ways by different readers. They can be interpreted either as confirming Arab perceptions of Western decadence or as familiarizing readers with alternative views of sexual behaviour. The problem, though, is that the dearth of coverage about Arab homosexuality encourages the idea that it is entirely a foreign phenomenon.

The essential principle here is equality, and there is no room for selectively excluding some human beings on the pretext of local circumstances or cultural norms. Either the equality principle is accepted in whole or it is not; there are no half measures. The equal rights established by the declaration include an equal right to life, equal freedom from arbitrary arrest, equal freedom from torture and ill-treatment, equal freedom from torture and ill-treatment, equal freedom of expression and association, and equality before the law.

Despite this, and despite ample evidence of abuses in various parts of the world, the United Nations has been slow to grapple, with what, for a large number of it members, is a highly sensitive issue…

The debate is often presented as a choice between cultural authenticity on the one hand and the adoption of all things Western on the other. In fact, neither is a realistic proposition. Exposure to foreign ideas and influences cannot be prevented, but nor are Arabs incapable of making critical judgments about them. Equally, Arab culture cannot be treated as a fossil; it is a culture in which real people lead real lives and it must be allowed to evolve to meet their needs. The issue, then, is not whether concepts such as ‘gay’ and ‘sexual orientation’ are foreign imports but whether they serve a useful purpose. For Arabs who grow up disturbed by an inexplicable attraction towards members of their own sex, they can provide a framework for understanding. For families – puzzled, troubled and uninformed by their own society – they offer a sensible alternative to regarding sons and daughters as sinful or mad.

Ahmed al-Enezi and Shahir al-Roubli were executed for murder at Arar in northern Saudi Arabia, close to the border with Iraq. Little is known about the two men except that they were lovers. When another man found out about their relationship and threatened to make it public, they killed him. Announcing their executions, a brief statement from the Saudi interior ministry said the couple had run over Malik Khan, a Pakistani citizen, with their car. They had then beaten him on the head with stones and set fire to his body, `fearing they would be exposed after the victim witnessed them in a shameful situation:’

One murder, two executions: three unnecessary deaths. Were it not for the Saudi law against homosexuality, with its extraor­dinarily severe penalties, all three men would still be alive and, most probably, doing no harm to anyone. Whether Malik Khan thought it was his religious duty to report the two male lovers to the authorities, or whether he had spotted an opportunity to extort money from them, is unclear. The balance of probability is that it was the latter, since anti-homosexuality laws, wherever they exist, provide a licence for extortionists.

Arab society has traditionally been more concerned with sexual acts and roles than with sexual identities. If a man assumes the active role in anal intercourse with another man, his action is not necessarily regarded as shameful or as indicating sexual orientation. He is merely performing the role that men nor­mally perform in intercourse with women. The fact that he does this with a man rather than a woman may even be interpreted as a sign of heightened masculinity, since sex with another man is popularly thought to require greater strength or sexual prowess. Assuming the passive position, on the other hand, is considered demeaning and a betrayal of manhood, since in this case the

interesting question, however. If Arab sexual­ity is as undefined as some suggest, what is the social norm that the ‘deviant’ shaadh is thought to be flouting? Is it heterosexu­ality or something else?

man replicates the role of a woman. The element of ‘shame, therefore, rests on an assumption that women are inferior to men. There is also a widespread belief that those who take the passive role cannot be doing it for pleasure — hence the tendency of the Egyptian police to regard such men as prostitutes.’° As in the West, popular Arab perceptions of male same-sex activity focus almost exclusively on anal intercourse, ignoring a variety of other possibilities, and participants are assumed to play fixed roles — either active or passive, but not both. In contrast to the West, however, there is also a striking absence of any notion that same-sex contacts might extend beyond physical gratifica­tion to a gay lifestyle or to loving, caring relationships.

As far as conscious efforts to promote change are concerned, there are huge differences between Arab countries in terms of what can realistically be achieved, at least in the short term. The essential first step, according to Ghassan Makarem, an activist in the Lebanese organisation, Helem, is `to try to have some critical mass: Initially this requires a local

network of gay men and lesbians that not only serves a social function, but allows them to talk about the issues that concern them, and eventually to organise. On their own, though, such networks can be extremely vulnerable, as their suppression in Egypt and Saudi Arabia has demonstrated. Gay and lesbian networks are not unique in this respect; on the whole, their treatment reflects government attitudes towards civil society movements in general.

Helem has survived in Beirut partly by not confining its attention to gay and lesbian activists alone; it has deliberately sought allies among others who work on sexual and reproduc­tive rights, human rights, and so on, as well as sympathetic pro­fessionals such as lawyers, doctors and teachers. ‘When we did this it was not that we were particularly accepted by Lebanese society but we were able to create a space that protects itself by being involved with other groups, by having people from other organisations, and by being visible.’… A surprise opportunity to make new contacts came in zoo6 during the month-long conflict with Israel. Hundreds of Shi`a Muslims fleeing the bombs in areas controlled by Hizbullah camped out in Sanayeh Park — just a block away from Helem’s office in Beirut. Helem joined forces with a variety of other groups and turned its office into a humanitarian relief centre.

That month of war, Makarem said, ‘created more visibility than in the past five years, and also in areas where we never thought that we could easily be.

should governments be the guardians of personal morality? For example, are private sexual acts between consenting adults a matter of state security? The Mubarak regime in Egypt appar­ently thought so. While eager to hunt down and imprison gay men, the Egyptian government showed itself incapable of con­trolling things that actually endanger the public, such as the ter­rible air pollution in Cairo, the buildings that regularly fall down on top of people, and accidents on the railways. Following one disastrous train fire in which hundreds died, the government’s reaction was to increase fares in order to provide life insurance for passengers. In Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon, large amounts of police time have been wasted in recent years tracking down and arresting devotees of heavy metal music. In 2003, in the midst of the most serious terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia’s history, the interior minister, Prince Nayef, turned his attention to protecting citizens from `un-Islamic’ influences by banning female dolls and teddy bears. Mobile phones with cameras were also made illegal for fear they might be used for immoral purposes — and of course became extremely popular….The laws against same-sex acts which exist in almost all Arab countries are one particu­larly striking example of dysfunctional legislation: millions of Arabs quietly disobey them with impunity while the few who happen to get caught can be punished severely.

there may also be reason for hope. Arabs nowa­days have just too much contact with the rest of the world to maintain an isolationist ‘cultural purity’ approach.

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